Innovative approach to sustainable forest waste management 

In a nation marked by pressing environmental challenges, innovative initiatives that address ecosystem restoration and waste management have gained paramount importance. 

Yet, a recurring challenge remains — the dilemma of what to do with the small-diameter, unmerchantable trees produced during restoration efforts.  

“Using ‘no value’ material is important, and the lack of a use for those materials is one of the greatest obstacles to forest restoration work,” said Patt Dorsey, NWTF West Region director of conservation operations. “There simply is no current market. It’s going to require creativity and new markets.” 

One pivotal player in this endeavor is Phoenix Recycling, whose innovative approach is transforming forest restoration and the management of biomass, or renewable organic material, in Southwest Colorado. 

Founded in 2001 by Mark Thompson in Durango, Colo., Phoenix Recycling has emerged as a frontrunner in recycling and waste diversion efforts. A recent development from this forward-thinking company is the 2023 establishment of Phoenix Biomass Solutions, a division dedicated to creatively transforming low- or no-value wood waste, forest residuals and biomass into valuable resources.  

Southwest Colorado, where Phoenix Biomass Solutions operates, has a number of communities juxtaposed with fire-adapted ponderosa pine forests. Restoring the forest to a condition that can handle wildfire, or a controlled burn, will require the removal of massive amounts of small-diameter trees. 

Managing wood waste and biomass presents a unique set of challenges. Large-scale pile burning, a low-cost and historically valuable tool, is becoming harder to manage and emits large amounts of carbon.  

“Finding new and cost-effective, socially acceptable ways to manage and add value to forest byproducts and biomass is a key element in successful forest restoration,” said Andy Hawk, Phoenix Biomass Solutions division director.  

Limited options and a growing need for environmentally friendly solutions have driven Phoenix Biomass Solutions to invest in a large-capacity horizontal wood grinder. This state-of-the-art equipment enhances the company’s ability to manage diverse forms of wood waste effectively. 

Operating within the Southwest Colorado landscape of the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative, the pilot project has a core objective: to assess the efficacy of Phoenix Biomass Solutions’ grinder. This comprehensive evaluation encompasses aspects such as the grinder’s material-handling capacity, its compatibility with different types of materials, associated costs, time efficiency and other pertinent factors. Remarkably versatile, the mobile grinder is designed to cater to diverse applications across the region. 

Within their contract with La Plata County, Phoenix Biomass Solutions was tasked with grinding approximately 6,500 cubic yards of composite material, generated by private individuals and commercial enterprises across the county.  

Testing the horizontal grinder in a remote location, Phoenix Biomass Solutions processed inconsistent, dirty material at a scale that would be representative of the forest residuals created during a large-scale restoration project. Phoenix Biomass Solutions demonstrated their capacity to handle a wide range of materials, from pine needles and leaves to 24-inch diameter cottonwood logs and slabs from local sawmills.  

The results of the pilot project were positive, allowing Phoenix Biomass Solutions to study production rates, operational hours, off-site equipment maintenance and other key factors. These insights will enable the business to establish benchmarks for operational efficiency and cost-effectiveness. 

The success of the pilot project has emboldened Phoenix Biomass Solutions’ pursuit of collaborations with public and private organizations for similar forest restoration initiatives. By offering mobile wood-grinding services, they aim to contribute to broader regional efforts through the scope of the work through the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative.  

The outcome of this initiative carries substantial significance. By combining wood waste from forest projects with treated sewage by-products from the local wastewater treatment facility, Phoenix Biomass Solutions is able to produce a nutrient-rich compost. This specialized compost aids in restoring degraded soils in forests where traditional revegetation approaches have struggled. Additionally, the compost will play a role in storing carbon within the soil, preventing its release into the atmosphere. 

These endeavors exemplify the potential to address complex environmental challenges through ingenuity, collaboration and a steadfast commitment to a greener future.  

“The real winners are our forests and our communities,” Dorsey said. “RMRI is about shared investments and shared benefits. Phoenix Recycling has made a huge investment that will benefit forest restoration across this landscape.”   

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