New Markets Call for New Management Practices

Forest Guild offers voluntary guidelines for forest harvesting and biomass retention.
By Michael DeBonis | September 23, 2013

For several centuries, America’s forests served as one of the single largest sources of energy for this growing nation. Wood heated homes and fired the boilers of America’s industrial revolution. With the discovery of fossil fuels, however, and more efficient ways to extract and transport them to population centers, the use of wood as a source of energy rapidly declined. This new source of energy, fossil fuels, took pressure off America’s forests, allowing them to grow back to the forests we see today.

America’s forests are once again being seen as an energy source as both the U.S. and Europe begin working to reduce the use of fossil fuels. The difference between today’s use of wood as an energy source and the past is that new technologies allow for much more efficient means of extracting valuable Btu from every ton of wood harvested. From heating single homes, to firing boilers in hospitals, to 20,000-ton cargo ships bound for European electric generating facilities, the use of wood for energy is resurging. In just five years, the U.S. has seen wood pellet and other woody biomass production climb from 1.8 million tons in 2008 to nearly 6 million tons in 2012. Dramatic growth of pellet and woody biomass facilities in the U.S. Southeast will bring even greater increases as more facilities come on line by 2015. The U.S. Forest Service forecasts forest bioenergy harvesting can increase anywhere from 54 to 113 percent by 2050.

This emerging industry could not have come at a better time. With reductions in production demands and capacities in the pulp and paper and sawmill industries brought on by the still-lingering global recession, the new surge in pellet production has been a shot in the arm to rural forest-based economies and forest owners. 

New Markets, Challenges

With the recent improvements in catalytic converter technologies, both New England and the Pacific Northwest are seeing increases in residential wood stove heating. Simultaneously, those regions are witnessing an increase in heating conversions at large municipal facilities such as hospitals and prisons as they add pellets and chips to their energy menu. The Southeast has found new markets filling European demand for wood pellets as an alternative to fossil fuels in electricity generation. U.K. electricity generating facilities are substituting pellets for coal in order to meet the U.K. Renewable Energy Directive, which calls for substituting 20 percent of current fossil fuel use with renewable sources by 2020. The European Union 2020 RED demands much the same from other member countries. 

While forest-based economies can benefit from new demand for wood, this presents a new set of challenges. In many cases, biomass harvesting techniques vary little from other traditional harvesting techniques. Nevertheless, these quickly emerging markets have the capability of causing ecological degradation, if not handled properly. 

The woody biomass industry is new in the U.S. compared to traditional forestry industries such sawmilling, pulp and paper, and even oriented-strand board. For the past several decades, these industries have operated their forest harvesting practices in accordance with best management practices (BMPs) designed by state forestry agencies to help maintain the quality of our lakes, streams and waterways. The woody biomass industry, however, postdates these BMPs. It may be some time before state forestry agencies will be able to address biomass harvesting and amend their BMPs, if they so choose, thereby leaving potential gaps in existing BMPs.

Forest Biomass Guide

Recognizing this gap, the Forest Guild, a U.S. nonprofit organization of nearly 1,000 foresters, has published a set of voluntary biomass harvesting guidelines (BHGs) for several regions of the country: New England, the Pacific Northwest and the Southeast. Titled “Forest Biomass Retention and Harvesting Guidelines,” the goal is to identify how expanding markets for forest bioenergy can enhance forests while at the same time meeting the economic and social needs of today’s population. The guidelines were developed to assist several audiences—foresters, landowners, harvesters and biomass facilities—demonstrate to their communities their commitment to the importance of forest sustainability. While developing the guidelines, the guild recognized that harvest technologies and biomass markets will change over time. With that in mind, the guidelines take a precautionary tack in order to avoid future issues that may arise around woody biomass removal. Also, the guild does not present guidelines as static targets to be maintained at all times in all places, but rather as guideposts for foresters, companies, harvesters and landowners concerned with sustaining their communities’ forests.

Ecological Value

Commercially, woody biomass has had little economic value in the U.S. This is changing. With the world’s concern regarding fossil fuel carbon in our atmosphere, technologies are changing, making wood a preferred source of energy. 

Ecologically speaking, downed woody material plays a critical role in the forest. For instance, downed and dead wood can play an essential role in wildlife habitat, acting as the home for nearly 55 mammal species, 20 bird species and numerous reptilian and amphibian species just in the Southeast. It also serves as seedbeds for tree and other plant species, and slash has been found to be beneficial to seedling regeneration after harvest.

Downed and dead woody material is just as valuable with regard to soil productivity and water quality. It helps prevent soil erosion by impairing and reducing surface water flow and substantially improves water-holding capacity. Additionally, downed and dead wood represents a large pool of nutrients, functioning as a significant contributor to soil organic matter.

A significant attribute of the guild’s voluntary retention and harvest guidelines is taking the guesswork out of how much woody biomass to retain. Synthesizing a large body of existing science and research, the voluntary guidelines provide foresters, landowners and harvesters tools to retain the right amount of standing dead trees and woody material on the forest floor.

The guidelines include quantitative guidance charts for region forest types for snag (standing dead or dying trees) retention and downed woody biomass in tons per acre. This helps take a lot of the guesswork out of adequate retention rates. The accompanying tables show retention goals for both snags and downed woody material by forest type in the Southeast and Northeast.

The Forest Guild’s “Biomass Retention and Harvesting Guidelines” offer several benefits to foresters, landowners, harvesters and pellet manufacturing facilities.

First, because the current wood-to-energy, biomass harvesting taking place today postdates state BMPs and forest certification criteria, these guidelines can bridge that gap until state forestry agencies and certification systems decide to address this harvest activity.

Second, the guild’s voluntary BHGs take the guesswork out of how much post-harvest woody debris retention is enough. The guidelines’ charts provide scientifically based volumes to aim for.

Third, woody biomass harvesting, especially post-harvest retention, is coming under the scrutiny of national, regional and local stakeholders and raising the public’s concern over long-term soil fertility and productivity. If adopted and properly implemented, these guidelines can go a long way toward addressing these concerns.

Fourth, the guidelines dovetail with existing third-party forest certification systems. Most certification systems require adequate retention of snags and dead wood, but do not provide specific bench marks. The guild guidelines fill this gap.

Finally, the Forest Guild’s “Biomass Retention and Harvesting Guidelines,” carries the benefit of being developed by third-party experts using best available science. This can carry a great deal of weight and credibility with the public, conservation groups and legislators.

Author: Michael DeBonis
President and Executive Director, Forest Guild