Vernonia stakes future on new school

Vernonia stakes future on new school

Linking: forests, energy and health care

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One of the most innovative partnerships to emerge from the Vernonia school project, and another one of those “right place at the right time” moments, is with the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, a forest conservation think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Catherine Mater, a senior fellow with the Pinchot Institute and president of Mater Engineering in Corvallis, was a member of the Oregon Way advisory group when the Vernonia Oregon Solutions team approached it seeking federal stimulus money for the new school.

Mater had been involved in studying for several years the issue of rural forest owners selling off their land to pay for unexpected health-care expenses. “I noticed they were surrounded by lush forestland, and didn’t have any biomass ideas. So I told them about this other idea,” says Mater.

From that has come the idea for a “thermal energy center” that would heat the Rose Avenue social services hub using local wood biomass — the new K-12 school is also to be heated by a similar biomass system — and the Western Oregon-Vernonia Forest Health/Human Health Initiative, a pilot project that Mater says is the first of its kind in the U.S. The pilot project is evaluating how to pay landowners for not selling or developing their property in exchange for carbon credits that they could sell to get health insurance; 20% of the proceeds would fund Vernonia’s community health clinic, which would then contract with local landowners for biomass for the thermal energy center. Pinchot says there are 700 private non-industrial forestland owners in Columbia County.

“It will fundamentally change the way we manage our forests, the way we finance health care and the way we handle health care for our families,” says Mater.

Funding has come from the Kelley Family Foundation, Pinchot, $50,000 from the USDA, and Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon.

In early September, Pinchot and forest scientists from Oregon State University tested in Vernonia a new ground-based light detection and ranging technology to evaluate cost-effectiveness to measures biomass and carbon volumes, necessary when paying landowners for their forests’ carbon storage. In mid-September, interviews with Vernonia and area forest owners and their children showed enough interest in the idea to move forward with a business plan finalization. American Carbon Registry was selected to serve as the global carbon verifiers. Woodlands Carbon will serve as the lead state carbon developer, and L&C Carbon will help guide the Vernonia project. Next steps include finalizing carbon contracts with Columbia County landowners, securing a lead health-care sector carbon buyer, and securing the organization that will administer carbon deposits into landowner health-care debit cards.

Local realtor Sharon Bernal, Vernonia's economic development chair, is one of those local timber families. Her great-grandfather homesteaded 160 acres in Vernonia; her grandfather bought 300 acres in 1932, and then gave 150 acres to Bernal’s father. Bernal, who has two adult sons, will inherit about 80 acres. She pays $629 a month for health insurance, so health care costs worry her.

“I’m getting a lot more involved with Mater and want to understand it before my dad passes because it’s important to me to keep that land,” says Bernal, whose father and landowner uncle do not support the idea. “We don’t want to sell.”

Robin Doussard