Saving Loyaton

Talking Tough in Loyalton 061312


On Monday, 11 June, a large group of experts in rural development met with heavy hitters, local politicians, and the public to discuss Plumas Rural Service’s plan to fire up the cogen plant and breathe some life back into Loyalton. 

The day-long meeting started with an introduction by PRS executive director Michele Piller.  Piller, aside from being a skilled administrator, is a brash and wonderful speaker, and her embracing and humorous style kept spirits high in what might have otherwise been a rather grim meeting.

It was grim because the road ahead for Loyalton, the Valley and the county is steep with many opportunities for a fall.  The meeting was cheek by jowl with experts in rural development, forest products, agriculture, aquaculture, and finance. 

Glenda Humiston

Loyalton is in a bad way, partially because the entire state is floundering, but partly because the time of small sawmills is passing.  Loyalton has always been a working town; it served the surrounding ranches but most of all it is a lumber town.  Loyalton is a working town, happiest when the ground rumbles with equipment and sweaty men.  At one time Loyalton was a bustling town with a car dealership and a hospital.  Now, the population is just over 750 and there are moments when one half expects tumbleweeds to gather on Main Street.  It isn’t impossible that Loyalton would continue to decline until there’s nothing but a church and a few houses; it’s happened to bigger towns.  Breathing life back into this lovely little valley town was the work of the meeting.

Michele Piller

Heavy Hitters:

Glenda Humiston, California Director of Rural Development for USDA; Humiston is knowledgeable, smart, and no BS; she said “slaughterhouse” about fifty times; if no effort is made toward a slaughterhouse we’re screwing up.

Ronald Tackett, Area Director of Business and Cooperative Programs for Rural Development of USDA.  Tackett knows what works and what doesn’t, and is available for idea development; someone locally should be on a first name basis with Tackett.

Michele Piller, Executive Director of Plumas Rural Services; a skilled administrator and an absolute gas in a meeting, Piller is the workhorse and cheerleader for the Loyalton project.  The project is fragile and could stumble over several obstacles on the path to success, but Piller is seen as likely able to find energy and friends when needed.

Keith Logan, principle in Logan Associates.  Logan has been before the Board of Supervisors describing the possibility of this very project, and has advocated for “Sierra County Branding”; knowledgeable, gifted speaker, visionary.

Jim Turner, creator and maestro of the cogen plant.  Turner knows everything about every aspect of biomass and electrical generation, and can diagnose the burner from two miles, and the generator by putting his hand on it.  It is possible the cogen project could succeed without Turner, but the likelihood is greatly reduced.

Gareth Mayhead, U.C. Berkeley. Mayhead is a prodigy of small power production; his knowledge is encyclopedic, his approach realistic.

Tony Vaught, aquaculture expert.  Though he only spoke for a few moments, Vaught described how to set up an aquaculture system in coordination with the cogen site.  A college class in aquaculture operation and marketing crammed into 15 minutes.

Tom Quinn, Forest Supervisor, Tahoe National Forest.  Much of the quality biomass for the cogen plant will come from forest under Quinn’s management.  Quinn suffers a great deal of bad press in Sierra County, partly because of a century of increasingly miserable relations with the FS including the abandonment of Downieville, the destructions of cabins, restrictions on Forest land and roads, and so on.  Almost none of these are Quinn’s fault, and it was nice of him to show up, contribute ideas, and get an understanding of the importance of the project to the county.  He was accompanied by:

Quentin Youngblood, Sierraville District Ranger.  Youngblood has a reputation for honesty and openness, and a willingness to cooperate.  Youngblood is likely to work as hard as possible to supply the cogen with hazard fuels.

Tim Holabird, representative from Congressman McClintock.  Though McClintock’s district has changed and he no longer represents the local area, his interest remains.  Holabird is a fixture at meeting like this, and has helped the cogen plant and local interests for the last several years.

Steve Frisch, Sierra Business Council.  Frisch and SBC are good examples of the future of the Sierra.  Frisch is active in projects toward making life in the Sierra profitable, sustainable, and still rural.

John Sheehan, currently an economic development consultant with experience in regional rural development and management.

Peter Huebner, Sierra County Supervisor.  Huebner has been a member of biomass groups, has been a strong supporter of the cogen plant, and represents the portion of the county where much of the biomass grows.

Brooks Mitchell, Mayor of Loyalton and life long Loyalton resident.  Mitchell has deep knowledge of the woods and the history of the town and plant.  His leadership could be a significant factor in the success of the idea of the cogen complex locally.

Vicki, Vicki’s Blue Moon bakery, who catered the event.  You want to know Vicki.



The group first received information on the project, which will include the cogen plant as the heart of a sustainable, essentially green business complex.  The cogen plant alone isn’t going to invigorate the area, and it might not be able to make it on its own.  Power prices are close, even with the cogen plant being identified as “bucket I” renewable fuel. 

The plant has electricity in abundant supply, which would be useful for high energy business processes such as flash freezing.  It could also supply grow lights; green houses are amazingly inexpensive to build, even those with insulated glass.  The steam could be useful to maintain constant temperatures in greenhouses or fish ponds.  It could cure or dry a number of different products.  The site has an amazing amount of water which could support a large, premium product aquaculture provider, as well as water for thirsty organic succulents.  The heat has been, and could be even more so, used to steam wood for boats or violins.  There is already a company in place, Hennessy, which produces flag poles and corrects ship masts. 

Soil amendment, composting and specialty mixes, is already planned for the project.

Ideally, a business would use the electricity and perhaps the heat from the cogen plant to add value to an already existing resource, for example, cattle, and Sierra Valley Quality Grass Fed Beef.  Glenda Huddleston, who knows ag and the ag business, repeatedly suggested doing a feasibility study for a slaughterhouse, which would be the cornerstone of a high end market for local beef. 

There are other connections, too.  The water could be used for a clean water spa and pool.  The spa could function in conjunction with other projects, for example, a local effort to encourage birders.  The Sierra Valley and hills around are filled with an amazing variety of birds; we’ve all seen birders stopped in the valley with huge cameras and little notebooks. 

There are experts at our disposal; many are expert at finding money for rural projects.  In the flood of hard times, God has sent us a rowboat.  We need to find and explore ideas.

Sierra Valley Google Interactive Birder Map

There are plenty of chances for the effort to fail.  The main problem right now is a power price agreement.  There are others: Jim Turner was able to make the cogen plant nearly profitable using subsidized products like urban yard waste, but ideally we would turn the potential for terror in our hills and towns into clean, renewable energy.  The problem is in the numbers; it costs money to fall, process and haul forest waste.  It’s the ideal fuel for the burner, Jim Turner says, but it costs money to get it to the burner and no one subsidizes it.  But, we need to clear our forests, and wildfires are efficient at doing that, but terrible for air quality and carbon release, and change the woods in ways that make them less useful to us.  A way needs to be found to: reduce harvest costs, reduce transport costs, and subsidize forest hazard fuel as a way to compete effectively with other fuels, notably natural gas. 

The next chance for failure comes when no one steps forward to define projects, do appropriate studies, approach grant and loan sources and put businesses in which will function in a symbiotic way at the cogen site.  No aquaculture, no herbs, no slaughterhouse. 

However, the biggest chance for failure comes from the residents of Loyalton, the Valley and the county.  If we don’t snap out of our stupor and get wholeheartedly behind this project, it almost can’t succeed.  It is not an exaggeration to say that to succeed we have to do what Loyalton has always done: work.  People have to take chances, invest their time and effort and money in small, integrated ventures. 

Somehow, we need to pull ourselves up, take what control we can, and make this project work, for Loyalton, the Valley, and the county.

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