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NMSU researchers help poplars take root as fast-growing cash crop

FARMINGTON - Within 10 years, up to 3,000 acres of Navajo land may be covered with a dense forest of skyscraping poplar trees.

NMSU research specialist Rob Heyduck, left, and Mick O'Neill?superintendent of NMSU's agricultural science center at Farmington?examine drip lines used to irrigate hybrid poplars. The trees are thriving in spite of the region's dry, alkaline soils. NMSU p

The Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI) plans to invest $2.3 million during the next decade to plant some 1.5 million hybrid poplars?a fast-growing tree that NAPI expects to turn into a highly profitable cash crop.

"This is a brand new product for us," said NAPI conservation manager Buddy Benally. "We're still learning how to plant and harvest poplars in a commercially viable way. It's a big-scale project that will take awhile to mature, but we definitely plan on doing it."

NAPI already planted about 100 acres of poplars with 50,000 trees in 2004, after New Mexico State University researchers demonstrated that some hybrid poplars thrive in the semiarid Four Corners.

Poplar research has been done in wetter states such as Washington and Oregon, but this is the first time agricultural researchers have demonstrated that hybrid poplars can grow well in the dry, alkaline soils of northwestern New Mexico, said Mick O'Neill, superintendent of NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Farmington.

"Hybrid poplars are fast-growing, very productive trees that could bring significant economic and environmental benefits to local communities, but they've never been grown here commercially," O'Neill said. "That's why we decided to test them."

In the last 20 years, commercial hybrid poplar production has expanded to over 50,000 acres nationwide because of the trees' rapid growth and potential for use in wood products and quality paper. Large plantations in the Pacific Northwest and Midwest supply poplars for pulp, lumber for small furniture, and for excelsior to make evaporative cooling pads and soil conservation blankets, O'Neill said.

Since spring 2002, O'Neill has tested 20 poplar clones at the center, planting about 1,300 trees. Some of the clones did poorly, but a few grew extremely well. The best-performing poplar, dubbed 'OP-367,' grew to 15 feet in the first 16 months, and, as of last year, they were nearly 40-feet tall, O'Neill said.

"Under adequate growing conditions, poplars will reach 90 feet in 10 years, which is the ideal size for many commercial uses," O'Neill said. "Our trees have already reached 40 feet in just four years, so they're doing very well."

Based on NMSU recommendations, NAPI began planting OP-367s and a few other high-performing clones in 2004. This year, NAPI will plant 75,000 poplars on another 150 acres.

The goal is to plant new trees every year to establish an ongoing cycle of annual harvests after 10 years, when the first plantings reach maturity, Benally said.

Before launching the project, NAPI leaders met with executives from Colorado-based Western Excelsior Corporation to assure a market for their poplars. The company?located in Mancos, about 60 miles north of Farmington?operates one of the nation's largest excelsior plants with aspen trees harvested from the San Juan National Forest.

"We told NAPI that we'd buy all the poplars they can produce," said Normand Birtcher, a forester with Western Excelsior. "We need new sources of raw materials to avoid dependence on aspens, and poplars would make a great substitute."

Still, with the first harvest another eight years away, NAPI is keeping its marketing options open.

"Most Southwest cooling systems use excelsior pads, so it might be more profitable for NAPI to make and market its own excelsior product rather than sell our poplars to another company," said Tsosie Lewis, NAPI general manager. "It takes 10 years to get to full production. We're in no hurry to decide how to market the poplars."

Apart from selling excelsior, NAPI could cut its poplars into lumber for small furniture and light construction. It is also considering selling the trees as wood chips for biofuel, either as logs for fireplaces or as a secondary fuel to co-fire coal-based power plants, Benally said.

To help assess the biofuel market, O'Neill is participating in a new U.S. Department of Energy study to test poplar potential as a wood fuel and as a source of ethanol. Last year, O'Neill planted 1,200 new trees with 65 different clones that the center received from Oregon-based Greenwood Resources. Greenwood is coordinating the DOE's $500,000 study, providing trees and surface drip irrigation systems for plantings sites in six states.

"Poplars could eventually provide a long-term, renewable source of energy for power companies to reduce dependence on fossil fuels," said Brian Stanton, managing director of Greenwood's resource management group. "This study could help build the market for poplar growers."

O'Neill has also met with representatives of the National Carbon Offset Coalition, which wants to research poplars' potential to absorb carbon dioxide. If the carbon sequestration potential is significant, it could open another market for NAPI and other growers to sell carbon credits to companies that want to offset their carbon dioxide emissions by planting new trees.

Regardless of how NAPI markets its poplars, the trees are a boon for the company's long-term land conservation goals.

"We're going to plant them all over," Benally said. "We'll put them in sandy areas for wind blocks and along roadsides for erosion control and aesthetic reasons. It's all part of our conservation and wildlife management plan."