Taming smoke with trees
Railroad to plant nearly 3,000 trees to lighten carbon footprint

SideStory: The carbon neutral card

A tree in downtown Durango blooms while the D&SNR passes by on its daily run to Silverton. In a unique effort to offset emissions from the train’s fleet of road vehicles, D&SNG owner Al Harper has teamed up with a local comapny, CarbonZERO, to plant nearly 3,000 trees locally./Photo by David Halterman

by Will Sands

The smoke is continuing to clear over Durango’s south side. A partnership between the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and local residents is forging ahead with ways to lighten the train’s environmental impacts. Next week, the local institution will take an innovative step at softening its carbon footprint by planting the first of nearly 3,000 new trees inside Durango City Limits.

Al Harper, D&SNG owner, came up with the tree idea after reading an article on a local company, CarbonZERO, which offsets local carbon emissions with local programs. Harper approached the company about creating an offset for the train’s vehicle fleet, which includes 12 maintenance trucks and four tour buses.

“We’re always looking for ideas and ways to improve the operation,” Harper said. “Not long ago, I read an article about CarbonZERO and how they can erase the carbon footprint of a car for just a few dollars a year. I thought maybe we could do a lifetime payment for each of the trucks in our maintenance fleet and each of our buses.”

Harper contacted Ian Barrowclough, director of CarbonZERO, about coming up with a specific program for the offsets. He then took the idea a step further and suggested that the payment could be made in the form of new trees planted in the local community.

“They calculated the life spans of the vehicles and then determined how many trees are needed to eliminate the emissions,” Harper said.

Durango will become a lot greener in coming months, as a result of the interaction and help from the Train Smoke Task Force, a committee of citizens, government employees and train officials, Beginning next week, a total of 2,587 new trees will be planted in the community with most going into the ground this fall. Sites on La Plata Electric Association land and at Fort Lewis College have already been earmarked for the mass planting. More than 20 trees will be planted on Durango’s south side during a kick-off event planned for May 2.

Barrowclough explained that CarbonZERO also works to offset carbon emissions by encouraging renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in the local community. However, it was the company’s urban re-forestation efforts that drew the D&SNG’s attention.

“Al Harper really latched onto the idea of urban reforestation,” Barrowclough said.

As the basis for the exchange, CarbonZERO determined that each new tree planted absorbs 1 ton of carbon emissions for every seven years of the tree’s life. The company looked at the size of the train’s vehicle fleet and arrived at 2,587 trees.

“The natural process of photosynthesis absorbs carbon dioxide and converts it to oxygen,” Barrowclough explained. “By planting these trees in Durango, we’re providing a local solution to a local problem.”

Harper echoed that sentiment, saying, “I think it was pretty clever of CarbonZERO, the task force and the train to come up with the idea of planting these trees to offset vehicle emissions,” he said. “What could be sweeter than bringing more trees to the community?”

Barrowclough praised the efforts of the train and the Train Smoke Task Force in coming up with the solution. “The train and the smoke mitigation task force have been really great to work with,” he said. “It’s a really positive experience.”

Task force member Jerry Swingle agreed with that assessment. Swingle, who also sits on the Durango Planning Commission, said the move will go beyond offsetting emissions and a long way toward improving quality of life in Durango.

“I’m delighted at the thought of someone wanting to bring in nearly 3,000 trees to the community,” he said. “One of the side-effects of all of the development we’ve been seeing is a loss of the natural landscape. Steps like this should help restore some balance.”

Beyond the tree planting, the D&SNG has been working for several years to bring its operation into better balance. As a coal-fired locomotive, the train has been wrestling with its emissions. With the locomotives running all night on “hot-standby,” that load has been especially heavy on Durango’s south side downwind of the D&SNG Roundhouse.

However, last year, the railroad pledged $1 million over the next five years to clean up emissions. The five-year commitment includes $50,000 each year in cash as well as $50,000 in in-kind labor. The D&SNGRR’s “Smoke Reduction Plan” also includes a cash commitment of $550,000 for more scrubbers in 2010, subject to paying off a current loan for the train’s scrubbers, which were installed in 2001. The train has already taken the following steps:

• In conjunction with Durango Noon Time Rotary, purchasing alternative energy credits to create a situation where the local steam engines will have no carbon footprint. So far, 60 percent of the footprint has been eliminated through the purchases.

• Burning wood pellets at night in place of coal. The move increased operating expenses by $40,000 but significantly improved air quality on the south side.

• Construction of a new ash pit in Silverton to reduce locomotive idle time in Durango.

• Doing all switching and track maintenance using diesel engines.

• Experimenting with “over fire tubes,” which create a cleaner engine burn with less smoke.

• Using higher-quality coal in all of the locomotives.

Swingle, who has also been a south side resident for more than 20 years, said that the train and task force have covered serious ground. “We – meaning the train, the task force and the south side neighborhood – are definitely gaining on it,” he said. “A lot of the effort of these groups is beginning to pay off.”

For his part, Harper said that the D&SNG is happy to be a part of the solution and looks forward to being a good neighbor well into the future.

“It’s steps like this that will enable us to preserve the historic character of this railroad while minimizing its impacts as we go forward in time,” he said.

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