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There You Go Again, Part 2? 3?

At a reader's behest Executive Editor Tim Portz reacts to the latest biomass hit piece published in the New York Times.
By Tim Portz | October 05, 2016

Yesterday the New York Times ran a story by Eduardo Porter entitled “Next ‘Renewable Energy’: Burning Forests, if Senators Get Their Way”. Biomass proponents, myself included lit up social media sites with responses of, what? Certainly not surprise, as the mainstream press continues to fail to get its arms around how forest-based biomass works. Candidly, they don’t even seem to fully grasp how forestry works in this country.

Readers of this blog may well remember a blog I wrote after traveling to Mississippi and Louisiana with a larger media contingent to have a close look at how working forests work. My blog articulated how wide of the mark I thought one story in particular, written by Danny Fortson, was. Porter’s latest effort is just more of the same. The headline tells you everything you need to know. I’m assuming by putting renewable in those single quotation marks Porter is asking his reader to wonder if biomass really is renewable at all. For me, this may be the most troubling assertion of his entire piece. If utilizing low value, waste residuals and pre-commercial thinnings from forests that are replanted to once again serve the high value and low value markets that rely on them isn’t renewable, I don’t know what is.

I could go on and on about the biggest cause of deforestation worldwide is a better economic return being offered by some other use. I could point out that forest inventories in this country have been stable for a century. I could talk about the army of actual forestry professionals that embrace forest-based biomass energy because it helps fund robust forest management practices. The question I continue to have is, does it matter? Candidly, I’m writing this blog because a reader sent in a note urging us to do so and as the Executive Editor of Biomass Magazine I suppose his request is fair. The bottom line however, is I could write a rebuttal like this nearly every day of my professional year. Why? Because so many folks in the mainstream press have fallen for the scorched earth myth being perpetuated by an increasingly familiar handful of groups. The terminology. The talking points. The imagery. It’s all so familiar.

Back to the headline. “Burning Forests”. The combination of those two words together urges people to believe that our industry is just waiting at parcel boundaries for the green light from landowners to rush in and take every last piece of fiber. But does Porter or the other writers before him ever ask about stumpage rates and how our industry can pay the least for wood fiber? They don’t, or they don’t print it because it blunts the sensational nature of what their trying to accomplish.

Finally, a final word on imagery. I think about imagery a lot and really have since that trip I took to Mississippi. Porter’s story yesterday ran with a photograph of a clear cut section of forests taken by Leah Nash. To those unfamiliar with forestry the image is jarring. Stumps are off putting to most folks and the Porters and the Fortsons and the photo editors that support them use them with aplomb. Consider this. On my trip to Mississippi our media contingent flew over vast expanses of heavily forested areas, as far as the eye can see type of vast and at 2,000 feet in the air the eye can see a lot. That afternoon some spotted showers had moved through the area and the sun was finally beginning to break out. A rainbow emerged, one end touching down in the middle of all of that green. I shot 25 different pictures. One of them ran on the cover of our title that year. The photographer traveling with Danny Fortson shot the same rainbow. I watched as the helicopter he was in circled and circled. Later on in the hotel bar the photographer and I talked about that image. That image never appeared in Fortson’s story. Instead a photo of whole logs dwarfing a wood lot worker ran as the featured issue. What I know, however, but was never really shared with the reader, was that those whole logs were awaiting conversion at a lumber mill, not a biomass pelleting facility. But again, that wasn’t carefully explained. The reader was invited to believe a fiction. Moreover, the image of the rainbow conveyed a far different story. The cover headline we chose to run with it was “Bountiful Biomass” because upon looking at that image, that is feeling you get.

Porter’s story is off the mark and I’m happy to say so. But my request to the gentleman that urged us to respond, and to everyone else in this industry is talk to someone that you know well that isn’t involved in forestry about how forestry works. Your friends. Your family. Your non-forestry colleagues. I’ve been covering forest-based biomass for nearly five years and I feel like I’m just starting to fully comprehend it which is why stories like Porters are so frustrating. Imagine, however, if Porter’s story was the only content on the matter you’d consumed this year. That’s the real bummer.