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NAFO refutes OSU biomass study conclusions

By Anna Austin | October 26, 2011

The authors of a study recently published by Oregon State University’s College of Forestry says that the production of bioenergy from U.S. West Coast forests would increase carbon dioxide emissions by at least 14 percent over the next 20 years, with the exception of forests in high-risk zones weakened due to insect outbreaks or drought.

“Regional Carbon Dioxide Implications of Forest Bioenergy Production,” which was published on Oct. 24 in Nature Climate Change, examined 80 forest types in 19 regions in Oregon, Washington and California, ranging from temperate rainforests to semiarid woodlands. Four basic scenarios were used, which were business as usual, forest management primarily for fire prevention purposes, additional levels of harvest to prevent fires but also make such operations economically feasible, and significant bioenergy production while contributing to fire reduction.

David Tenny, president of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, said the study’s findings are based on wild assumptions. “One of the common threads of studies like this one is that the outcome all depends on these up-front assumptions,” he said.  “In this case, they look at the potential of treating 5 percent of the forests in the region, for a 20-year rotation of treatments, adding that on top of what they call ‘business as usual’ forest management practices.”

If one considers that assumption and extrapolates it to other parts of the nation, it would suggest that productivity in timber management will increase by a factor of 20 percent, notwithstanding the constraints such as cost or feasibility, according to Tenny. “You have to think about whether that even makes sense as an assumption,” he said. “Looking at it another way, 5 percent of all of the 200 million acres of forest land in the Northwest area is 10 million acres more than what we’re already doing out there. Comparatively, the U.S. Forest Service with its 155 million acres of national forest system lands, and the U.S. Department of Interior land which is a couple hundred million acres, in their best year combined were able to treat 1.4 million acres of forestland.”

The study assumes the Northwest would see a tenfold increase in that number during the next 20 years. “The suggestion that we would or can do that is wild,” Tenny said. We won’t and can’t see a 20 percent increase of activity because resources aren’t available for it to occur, and the forests out there aren’t designed for it.”

Tenny said that over the past 50 years, despite increases in demand for a variety of products such as wood, paper and energy, the total forest volume on the ground has increased by 51 percent. Additionally, the carbon added to the atmosphere has already been removed, but the study’s approach does not take that into account, rather it assumes a carbon debt that has to be repaid.

Tenny doesn’t think the study will have any influence on future biomass energy policy. “It will probably crumble under its own weight,” he said. It takes a very short time frame, doesn’t look at the carbon cycle as it really is—at a scale that should be global—while confining the scale to a very narrow period of time using rotations that are four times shorter than the standard in the area. When you’re using scales that are ten times more than the federal agencies do nationally in a year, you’re going to come up with a conclusion that there will be more carbon in the atmosphere in the results.”