Woody biomass grants aim to expand use of forest waste

By Susanne Retka Schill
This spring, a round of USDA grants totaling $4.1 million was awarded to 17 small businesses and community groups that are developing innovative uses for woody biomass from national forests.

The grants will help create markets for small-diameter woody material, and damaged and low-valued trees removed to reduce the risk of fire hazard, insect infestation and disease. "The renewable use of shrubs and underbrush removes unhealthy overgrowth in our national forests, and creates local opportunities for new products and energy sources," said Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer when he announced the grant awards.

A past grant winner in Montana, for example, demonstrated the feasibility of adapting a roll on/off container system used by waste management firms to efficiently concentrate forest slash. One of this year's grantees, the Coquille Tribe of Oregon in North Bend, Ore., will be purchasing equipment to utilize the same system to collect and transport forest slash, rather than piling and burning it. The tribe supplies woody biomass to several projects.

In Portland, Ore., Bear Mountain Forest Products was given a grant to collaborate with others in using a briquetting machine for densifying wood residue. According to Susan LeVan-Green, program manager of the Forestry Technology Marketing Unit at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., the high needle content in some material makes it unsuitable for pelletizing processes aimed at the residential market because high needle content increases the ash above acceptable levels. Bear Mountain's work is demonstrating the effectiveness of using lower-grade, high-needle-content material in making larger compressed briquettes, which can be used in industrial boilers, creating a new market for the wood waste.

This is the fourth year of the USDA's woody biomass program, which has granted a total of $19.1 million to 81 projects to help businesses, tribes and organizations upgrade equipment, and install systems to make better use of woody underbrush and forest slash. "We've had some very good success with the program," LeVan-Green said.