Feb 292012

By Teri Walker —

A new website launched this last week dedicated solely to potash in the Holbrook Basin is the latest in a lineup of organizations and activities that has sprung up as a result of the multiple natural resource industries that are emerging in the region.

Put together by the Little Colorado River Plateau Resource Conservation & Development Area, Inc. (RC&D), www.holbrookbasin.org is a website that focuses on all things potash: what it is (a mineral used to make fertilizer), how it’s mined, and challenges and opportunities presented by the prospect of mining it in the Holbrook Basin of Navajo and Apache counties.

The new website was launched on the heels of a regional watershed conference, also hosted by the RC&D, that brought together scholars, scientists, geologists, hydrologists, miners, National Park employees, environmental experts and more to discuss the potential for this salty little mineral to become the next big thing in these rural environs. It came the week before a community forum on potash, (happening tonight, Feb. 29, in Holbrook) that local business leaders organized to provide area residents, businesses and organizations a chance to hear directly from the mining companies exploring in the basin what their plans are, and what the potential impacts of their operations may be.

The new website, the community forum, the recent organization of the Holbrook Business Development Group–these efforts join another relatively new player in the region, the REAL AZ Corridor, a regional eco-nomic development group which took root a couple years ago. The corridor has completed its organizational phase and is now working to increase awareness of the region, involving communities, businesses and gov-ernments from Apache and Navajo counties. REAL AZ also compounds efforts being made individually by municipal governments in Winslow, Snowflake, Taylor and Holbrook to get a grasp on the industries that are emerging in the area, figure out what the real impacts in terms of jobs and revenue may be, how likely they are to come to fruition and how to plan to not only accommodate them, but take maximum advantage of them.

Potash is a relative newcomer on the scene in terms of public awareness, if not geologically speaking. Before potash began quietly stirring around 2009 when Vancouver and Apache Junction-based Passport Pot-ash, Inc. set up its first drilling rig in the basin, there was already a lot of energy surrounding the notion of harvesting small forest products to improve the health of Arizona’s national forests while creating a whole new industry within the timber industry, finally making use of the small-diameter material that up till now has been rotting on the forest floor when it wasn’t feeding catastrophic and costly wildfires.

The two reported leading contenders for undertaking the 35,000 to 40,000 acres of thinning identified as needing to happen in forests each year would both set up shop in Winslow should they be awarded the federal thinning contract.

Arizona Forest Restoration Products would open an oriented strand board (OSB) plant, producing 470 million square feet of board annually and anticipating $130 million in local sales. The company estimates it would need 140 full-time employees, and would spur related jobs in forestry, construction and trucking.

Pioneer Products would convert the salvage timber into non-commodity, high value lumber and panels for furniture, cabinetry and specialty building components, with some material leftover for energy producing products. Company principals have said they expect their operation would create at least 460 permanent, full-time jobs, if not 15 to 20 percent more than that.

The decision from the Forest Service on which company will be awarded a 10-year stewardship contract to accomplish forest restoration in four Arizona forests has been highly anticipated for months, but it has not yet been handed down.

Wind farms have also cropped up on the horizon in recent years–literally. Near Snowflake and along State Route 87, the Dry Lake Wind Farm, phases one and two, built by Iberdrola, has been completed, with 30 turbines set in motion in 2009 and another 31 going live in 2011, selling energy to the Salt River Project to power homes and businesses across the Southwest.

Because wind is one energy source of which this region is not in short supply, there’s plenty available to support a third wind farm project, which was recently approved by the Navajo County Board of Supervisors. The Disgen Marcou Mesa wind farm would include 130 to 189 wind turbines across 33,709 acres of land about six miles north of Joseph City and south of the Navajo Nation border.

Project developer Dale Osborn estimates the local construction services would come to approximately $12 million and that the county would receive approximately $1.6 million in property taxes annually. While the Iberdrola projects employ only a handful of employees, Osborn says his project will require 40 to 50 full-time employees.

Algae Biosciences and Chromatin are smaller players on the employment scene, but both are opening up new endeavors in their respective fields.

Algae Biosciences is nearing completion of a $5.75 million construction and retrofitting project at its Adamana facilities. With the expansion, AlgaeBio, as the company is also known, will reach full commercial production of the omega-3 fatty acid oils it produces for the nutraceutical and food ingredient markets.

Chromatin, Inc., a Chicago biotech company, is researching the use of biologically engineered sorghum as a source of alternative fuel, one that is being explored as an alternative to coal burning fuels.

Chromatin is growing a few test farms in the region, using a $5.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. The high desert of northern Arizona was selected for the test farms because sorghum grows best at relatively high temperatures and in conditions with limited mois-ture.

Whether there was a master plan in place or not (and to date, no one has come forward claiming to have had one) this corner of northern Arizona appears to have evolved into a natural resources-alternative energy Mecca, of sorts.

If the potash mining really does come to town, it could bring with it 800 construction workers, coming in phases, not all at once, over the year-and-a-half timeframe estimated to build a mine. Once it’s built, it’s es-timated about 300 to 400 permanent employees will be needed to operate it.

If there are two mines built, double those numbers.

There is a third company exploring in the Holbrook Basin, but it isn’t known yet whether it will develop its own mine, or sell out or combine with one of the other mining operations. Officials from both Passport Potash and American West Potash, the Denver-based company that’s furthest along in mine planning, have said it doesn’t seem likely there would be three separate mines operating in the Basin, but so far, the third exploration company, HNZ Potash, a subsidiary of Hunt Oil, hasn’t ruled out the possibility.

With both the potash and the timber projects, it’s in the next few months that community and business leaders will have a better sense of whether these new industries will be setting up in the region.

And, with all of these industries converging, suddenly, this region has a different story to tell. Before, there was Route 66 and the Old West and sheep herding and railroading, but now earth’s elements are leading the charge.

The dawning realization that the region is changing its stripes is what is prompting the conservation orga-nizations, business groups and economic development interests to begin looking deeper at implications for growth, for reinvigorating declining rural economies and repackaging the product that is northeastern Arizona to sell to the market.

The big questions remaining are: What will really land here, and will regional leaders, businesses and entrepreneurs be ready to make the most of it?