Pueblo Makes Environmentally Friendly Tree Products


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PICURIS PUEBLO- They're making the most with what they have.

What Picuris Pueblo has is leftovers from overgrown forests, which doesn't sound like much. But they're making some environmentally friendly charcoal that can be sold for more than 50 cents a pound.

Turning a fire hazard into economic development and waste into value-added products is the focus of the pueblo's two-year, $200,000, Forest Service collaborative forest restoration program grant.

"Ideally, what we are hoping to do here is produce a number of products in an environmentally friendly fashion using the pueblo's thinned, small-diameter trees," said Burke Denman, president of Sustainable Communities/Zeri New Mexico.

The project doesn't stop making use of wastes there; it's using the smoke generated from the process of slowly burning trees into lumps of charcoal to preserve lumber in a separate oven that can be used for construction. The pueblo is even looking at the possibility of using wood resins collected from the wood preservation oven as a natural fungicide.

Since 1995, Sustainable Communities/Zeri, a Santa Fe-area nonprofit organization, has been focused on developing practical, environmentally friendly solutions for community problems. In March, it joined forces with Swiss-based Zeri International and further narrowed its problem solving to using science and technology to spur environmentally sustainable economic development.

The group had already worked with Picuris for a number of years on different community projects when the idea for the charcoal business was developed about a year ago.

Lynda Taylor, co-director of Sustainable Communities/Zeri, said the project became a reality in February when it won the Forest Service grant, established four years ago in a law sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

In a clever approach that seeks to literally squeeze every ounce of value out of forest slash that might normally be considered waste, Picuris and Sustainable Communities/Zeri are looking to market products at every step of the project.

"All along the way, we are adding value to what was previously considered waste in the forest," Denman said.

Denman explained that even the smallest-diameter tree branches, too small to turn into charcoal or use for firewood, can be chipped in place and inoculated with oyster mushroom fungi. The fungi help break down the chipped material, quickly returning nutrients to the forest. The oyster mushrooms can even be harvested for sale later, and up to 20 percent of the fungus-wood chip mix can be used as feed for the pueblo's bison or cattle, Denman said.

"It's not just about charcoal or wood, it's about creating economic development and lifting up communities," Taylor said.