Federal grant for Sandoval County aims to reduce fire danger, boost economy

RIO RANCHO, N.M. (KRQE) – Creating jobs while reducing fire danger. That’s what a federal grant aims to do for one New Mexico county.

The feds are forking over close to $250,000 to help Sandoval County create businesses that can use wood to create fuel or products, like furniture. The goal is not only to boost the economy, but also to restore the forest.

Sandoval County officials say economic development is a top priority.

“To try to create an environment where the citizens of our county can prosper by having jobs to support themselves and their family,” said Sandoval County Public Information Officer Sidney Hill.

Yet, in a community like Sandoval, they say solutions don’t come easy.

“When you’re in a rural area that’s sparsely populated, you have to find ways that naturally lend themselves to economic growth in that environment,” said Hill.

Hill says a recent $250,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service puts them on the right track.

It comes from the feds’ effort to find solutions for lumber leftovers called biomass. That includes branches, needles, bark and sawdust — the parts of a tree that are harder to use and worth less.

“We’re trying to find ways to economically use that so that it can help us restore the forest and treat more acres, really,” said Buck Sanchez. “It’s essential in today’s time, especially with the fire season we had, to use all the tools we have available to try to restore the forest and enhance the watersheds and reduce the chance of a fire.”

Sanchez says partnering with local governments to help thin forests and find use for the leftovers saves them money, while protecting the watershed and reducing fire danger.

“It’s an economical and ecological solution for a problem that’s been building over a century,” explained Sanchez.

He says the Sandoval County Biomass Utilization project is expected to help remove hazardous fire fuels from 600,000 acres of forest land in the Rio Grande watershed, while creating 900 jobs for locals to help remove wood and put it to good use.

Forest officials say half of the lumber harvested is thrown away. That’s the biomass part.

Hill says Sandoval was also recently selected to be part of a study to find out if the area has a competitive edge in the marketplace and, if not, what can be done to change that. He says the county also received $10,000 from the state to promote tourism.

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