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Harvesting Forest Renewables Sustainably

Harvesting woody biomass is ‘preventive medicine’ for our forests and just what the doctor ordered for timber-dependent communities.
By Mike Schmidt | January 25, 2011

The solution to some of America’s most pressing environmental, energy and economic challenges can quite literally be found at our feet. Sustainable harvesting of forest renewables (woody biomass) is “preventive medicine” for our forests, helping limit the number and severity of forest fires, reducing the habitat of destructive insects to help ensure that the healthiest trees thrive, and promoting the growth of healthier, stronger trees. In addition, it offers struggling communities a much-needed, new revenue stream and other social benefits.


As an energy source, forest renewables may still be relatively new, but they have unlimited potential.
Forest renewables come from several sources, including:


• Residues and byproducts from wood processing mills and pulp and paper mills.


• Residues from logging and site-clearing operations.


• Biomass from fuel treatment operations to reduce forest fires.


The USDA and the U.S. DOE estimate 368 million dry tons of sustainably removable biomass can be produced from U.S. forestlands per year.1 Harvesting it represents substantial environmental, social and economic opportunities, particularly for rural forestry communities.


Fewer and Less Catastrophic Forest Fires

Excessive dead, dry material that has accumulated in our forests poses significant wild land fire risks. Over the past 10 years, these fires have consumed more than 49 million acres of forest in the United States alone, and federal agencies have spent more than $8.2 billion fighting them. Removing forest renewables could help save millions of acres of forest and billions of taxpayer dollars spent battling forest fires. 


According to Danny Dructor, executive director of the 10,000-member American Loggers Council, harvesting forest renewables can go a long way toward reducing that destruction and expense.
“The impact of forest fires is greatest in the Western states,” he points out. “If we could take that biomass off the forest floor, the understory and small-diameter trees that really have no market value as timber, we could reduce the fuel that feeds those fires. And I’m convinced we could reduce the number and the severity of the catastrophic wildfires that we’re seeing.”


Reduced Insect Infestation


In addition to decreasing fuel for potential fires, harvesting forest renewables also reduces habitat and food for destructive insects such as the mountain pine beetle, which thrives in overstocked areas and kills healthy trees.


According to the U.S. Forest Service, 2.5 million acres of pine trees in Colorado and Wyoming were affected by the mountain pine beetle epidemic between 1996 and 2008.2 The Natural Resources Defense Council also released a report in July on the dead and dying high-elevation forests in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Within these regions, aerial photographs have documented 1 million acres of whitebark pine forest dead or dying from the mountain pine beetle and, to a lesser extent, an invasive fungus. One of the report’s authors, Wally Macfarlane, has stated that another million acres of whitebark pine forest are at risk.3


Harvesting forest renewables can not only reduce insect food and habitat, but it can also thin forests to promote the growth of healthier trees, which are better able to resist infestation, grow to their full potential and contribute to a healthier environment.



Compatible With Forest Service


Recognizing the value of sustainable harvesting of forest renewables, the U.S. Forest Service began implementing its Woody Biomass Utilization Strategy4 in 2008. The program includes harvesting dead trees in 19,000 acres of forests to help reduce the threat and impact of wildfires and prevent further spread of beetle infestation.


Cody Neff, owner of West Range Reclamation of Crawford, Colo., is happy to be part of that strategy. Neff has been involved in ecosystem management for more than 10 years, working with a wide variety of federal, state and environmental agencies such as the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Colorado’s Division of Wildlife and State Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy. In 2009, the Forest Service awarded his company a 10-year forest stewardship contract that includes reducing hazardous biofuels in Colorado’s Arapaho, Roosevelt and Pike-San Isabel National Forests.


“Most of our forests are dangerously loaded with hazardous fuels, including understory and beetle-infested trees,” Neff says. “Wildfire has historically played an essential role in the natural development of our Western ecosystems, but today’s wildfires are not those of the past. They are much more dangerous and devastating. Unhealthy forests are also much more susceptible to disease and insect epidemics, which in turn create even more fuel for wildfires. Sound forest management, including sustainable harvesting of renewables, can help conserve the Western landscape that we all value so much.


Neff has personally witnessed the positive effect this harvesting can have in limiting a forest fire. “A fire broke out near Boulder, Colo., just two weeks after we had removed diseased trees and understory from what had been a particularly dangerous area,” he says. “The fire had escalated into the canopy, but when it reached our treatment area, the limited understory enabled firefighters to put it out. It was more than gratifying to see the good that had resulted from our work—the forest that was saved because of it.”



Economic and Social Benefits


Harvesting and converting forest renewables to energy can provide a solution to some of the country’s most pressing economic and energy challenges. These benefits start by making use of logging slash, which is typically left to waste on the forest floor or simply collected and burned. An associate professor of forest operations at Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Tom Gallagher has studied the issue and understands its short- and long-term potential.


“The ‘low-hanging fruit’ right now is logging slash,” Gallagher explains. “Millions of tons of this material are available every year without impacting other markets, and it only makes sense to capitalize on this opportunity. Is woody biomass really something we can use to produce energy in a sustainable way? Absolutely. Further research is needed to make biomass harvesting and processing more efficient. But I have all the confidence in the world that with collaborative efforts by all the stakeholders—government, landowners, loggers and markets—we can make world-changing use of this sustainable material.”


The ALC’s Dructor sums up the problem and the opportunity this way: “Most timber-dependent small communities are facing upwards of 20 percent unemployment. By developing energy from woody biomass, we can create new markets, new opportunities and new jobs. We can revitalize rural economies and help kids who are growing up in small communities remain in those communities by providing high-paying jobs.”


Healthy forests rely on sustainable forest management, which includes the removal of excess biomass. Sustainable harvesting of forest renewables represents an important new step in the overall strategy of sustainable forest management.


To learn more about the importance of harvesting woody biomass, visit the John Deere-sponsored website www.woodybiomass.com.

1Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: The Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual Supply, U.S. DOE and USDA, 2005.

2, 4U.S. Forest Service Woody Biomass Utilization website, www.fs.fed.us/woodybiomass

3Macfarlane/Logan/Kern. Using the Landscape Assessment System (LAS) to Assess Mountain Pine Beetle-Caused Mortality of Whitebark Pine, Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, 2009: Project Report, 2010.

Author: Mike Schmidt
Manager of Forestry Renewables, John Deere Construction & Forestry Division
schmidtmike@johndeere.com

 

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