Forest thinning in Ariz. could benefit environment, economy

By Erin Voegele | April 18, 2014

A recent report finds that forest thinning could improve the health of Arizona’s forests while strengthening rural economies. Small diameter wood harvested as part of thinning activities could be used for many purposes, including bioenergy production.

The report, titled “Modeling the Economic Viability of Restorative Thinning,” was produced by Arizona State University’s Sustainable Solutions Services and The Nature Conservancy. It provide an assessment of possible wood processors and consumers, or business clusters, if small-diameter wood from northern Arizona was sustainably harvested.

Information published by SSS explains that Arizona lost approximately one-quarter of its forests to wildfires, drought and bark beetle infestation from 2002 through 2011. In addition, decreased public funding for forest thinning and the low economic value of small diameter wood has made the state’s forests particularly vulnerable to fires and drought.

“Our analysis shows that it is possible to make small diameter wood harvesting economically viable,” said Dan O’Neill, general manager of the Services, a consulting service offered by ASU’s Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives. “There’s survivability and economic reasons to restore our forests. The market can drive solutions that help rural economies and reduce the need for government subsidies.”

The report discusses the potential for biomass cofiring, direct combustion, gasification, pyrolysis, torrefaction, and pellet production. It also addresses several other non-energy uses that could potentially utilize biomass sourced from forest thinning.

Analysis preformed by the researchers indicates promising pathways for the use of small diameter wood as biomass for energy production, lumber or engineered wood. “Strategically, a major finding suggests a viable scenario in which the forest industry may thrive off of operating several businesses that are modularly built with smaller capital investments, rather than, or in combination with, a few businesses requiring larger capital investments,”  wrote the authors in the report.

A full copy of the report can be downloaded here.