Energy pays the bills as regulations chip away at available grazing acreage
By TIM HEARDEN
When Ross Burgess built his hydroelectric plant in the mid-1980s, the income augmented his northwestern California cattle and timber operations.
Now expanded to produce three times the power it did in the beginning, the plant is Burgess' main source of income. In developing the plant, the one-time Trinity County supervisor used old mining technology to fashion screens that keep out mud and fish.
"I'm a type-A person, and I am always interested in a challenge, something new and different that I can become interested in that will challenge my knowledge and ability," said Burgess, 65, who lives in the tiny mountain community of Zenia.
"My grandfather and my godfather both had self-serve hydro plants ... so as a child I became interested in the technology," he said.
Burgess is like many producers in the West who've sought to leverage their struggling agricultural operations. In his case, both the cattle and timber operations were hampered in the early 1990s by the listing of the northern spotted owl as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
As a result of the listing, Burgess lost three of his four permits to graze on U.S. Forest Service lands, and the agency drastically reduced his stocking and use time on the one remaining.
"I'm now down to 15 or 16 cows, and yes, I'm still in the cattle business but it's a hobby and nothing more," said Burgess, who had more than 300 mother cows in the early 1980s.
The native of southwestern Trinity County, whose great-grandfather's family settled in Zenia in the late 1800s, began buying properties in the area in 1979.
An Air Force enlistee who was stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam conflict in 1965 and '66, Burgess went to work for the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. in Denver in the late 1960s and bought his own tire store in Redway, Calif., in 1970. The business, which specialized in logging truck tire retreads, relocated south to Willits, Calif., in 1975.
In 1985, Burgess used a line of credit to build the Bluford Creek Hydroelectric Project with two limited partners, which he later bought out. He acquired additional property on the nearby Mud Creek drainage in 1987, obtained licenses and water rights on three additional tributaries in 1990 and augmented his power plant in 1992.
It now produces about 6.6 gigawatt-hours of power each year, which he sells to Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
"There are four live diversions," he said. "I have an off-stream storage pond that stores 6 megawatts of energy, so I basically collect water year-round and use it to deliver energy when it's most valuable. ... We shape our deliveries."
As part of the expansion, Burgess made use of screens developed in France in the 1950s to separate water from coal slurry that had been piped from mines.
That type of screen had been used for other industrial applications but never for a hydroelectric plant, Burgess said.
"It's been copied by (companies in) several European countries who sent engineering firms to take pictures and understand how it works," he said.
By 2000, Burgess had bought 1,287 acres of mostly timberland in the Zenia area, which he logs himself. In 2009, he donated 1,131 of those acres to a conservation easement in return for tax credits.
The hydro plant provided Burgess with the money to manage vegetation, build and maintain a road system and put together a management plan and an inventory, he said.
While current state laws and market realities would make such hydro plants nearly unfeasible today, other technologies such as wind and solar power could serve as sources of income to supplant timber properties, he said.
"I was prepared at the right time and the right place," he said.
Norman Ross Burgess
Residence: Zenia, Calif.
Family: Son Robert Burgess, daughter Nicole Burgess, three grandchildren