US Forest Service and Biomass: A Symbiotic Partnership
As noted in this column previously, and widely documented in California, the Golden State forests are in a state of emergency.
More than 100 million trees across California, many located in the federally managed Sierra, Stanislaus and Sequoia National Forests, are dead, owing to a years-long drought and a nasty bark beetle infestation. As many as 90,000 acres in the state qualify as high-hazard zones, with trees ready to topple over or catch fire, posing significant risk to residents, tourists, homes and infrastructure. Some of the hardest-hit areas have as many as 14,000 dead trees per square mile.
On top of that, the U.S. Forest Service budget that could contribute to clearing out lands in the highest risk areas is increasingly consumed with fighting fires. More than half its 2016 budget—well over $1 billion—went toward fire suppression. The forest service projected in 2015 that, through 2025, its budget for fire suppression would rise to an average of $1.8 billion annually. The urgency and frequency of fighting fires has created a difficult cycle for the forest service, in which resources that could go toward management and prevention must be used for emergency purposes, thus reducing the ability of the agency to prevent the costly emergency to begin with.
On the other hand, the fleet of nearly 30 California biomass facilities is facing its own challenges. Natural gas prices continue to stay attractively low for utilities, at a time when many biomass facilities are seeing their PURPA contracts and federal production tax credits come to an end.
Some of these facilities are located close to the high-hazard zones and are well positioned to take on the hazardous fuel cleared from the forests. Some of them are even obligated, through the state’s BioRAM program, to use forestry residues as a significant portion of their fuel. As with the other types of fuel they use, these biomass facilities expect to pay for fuel removed from federal lands, or at the very least, chip in for transportation costs.
The Biomass Power Association is working with the U.S. Forest Service to develop a detailed plan that we can present to Congress to involve biomass in solving some of the forestry problems in California and other areas. Our plan will include some of the following elements:
• Fully fund the U.S. Forest Service. For too long, the agency’s budget has been dedicated to fire suppression rather than management, and there must be an alternative budget for natural disasters like wildfires.
• Allow the U.S. Forest Service to value hazardous fuel in a way that enables the agency to “sell” it at a low or no cost. Current regulations state that timber produced from federal lands must be sold at market value. There should be a way to work around that when it comes to removing hazardous fuels.
• Put systems in place to manage forests for prevention, rather than suppression in the future. Setting aside the urgent tree mortality crisis in California at the moment, federal lands will continue to require management and biomass facilities can take on residues from tree and timber removal.
California forests have a clear problem (millions of dead trees that need to be removed) and a solution (biomass facilities that can take on hazardous fuel for a productive use, and share in the expense). The obstacle is, as usual, funding. It’s expensive to cut down dead trees, chip them up, and haul them out of the forests to biomass facilities that are located dozens or hundreds of miles away.
It’s never easy to secure additional funding for a federal agency. Even in the friendliest political climate—far from the dividedness we are experiencing in 2017—it’s a long, arduous process that involves many committees, constituencies and competing priorities. However, we believe there’s a sensible and workable solution and that the biomass industry should play a vital role in forest management.
Author: Bob Cleaves
President, Biomass Power Association