The Ideological Divide

Understanding the positions of those opposed to the wood pellet industry is critical to overcoming and reconciling differences.
By Ron Kotrba | May 23, 2018

The inability to see the world through other points of view is treacherous to relationships. Closemindedness, particularly when affixed to hardline positions and unbendable philosophies, cannot bridge ideological gaps. Sometimes, nothing can. The phenomenon of two individuals viewing the same situation and interpreting it very differently is as old as the human experience itself. Respect for other interpretations, even though disagreement exists, is critical to building solid relationships and is often beneficial in collaborations.

Many in the biomass industry consider themselves environmentalists—champions of clean, renewable energy whose lifework benefits society and the planet. “I like to say I’ve been an environmentalist much longer than I’ve been a forester,” says Heather Nobert, a forester and forest product marketing coordinator with the Nebraska Forest Service. It wasn’t so long ago when biomass advocates were more universally recognized with this designation than today, but somewhere along the way, something changed. It’s difficult to pinpoint when or how. Maybe a couple of isolated incidents by a few bad actors became sensationalized in effective campaigns, and over time, this was perpetuated by misconceptions or misperceptions, and what was perhaps once a small fissure between environmentalists and biomass proponents became a grand ideological divide.

Fundamental differences exist between environmental groups and manufacturers of forest products such as the wood pellet industry. Even seemingly simple definitions, such as what a “healthy forest” is, or whether biomass is carbon-neutral, become vastly complex. “While landowners prioritize maximizing economic output from their forests, which usually means maximizing growth rates of commercially valuable individual trees, environmentalists prioritize ecosystem values, like biodiversity and the potential for forests to provide natural habitat and long-term carbon storage,” says John Upton, a features journalist with Climate Central. “It’s hard to reconcile these values, which is why I think the two sides are almost always at war with each other. And because these values are so hard to reconcile, the greatest opportunities for compromise on land management seem to come from dividing land into areas that are protected, and areas that are used for commercial purposes, with decisions about land designations guided by the dual goal of maximizing both natural and financial payoffs. I just don’t see much common ground among landowners or foresters and environmentalists when it comes to metrics of forest health—they will look at the same trees but see different forests.”

Thomas Buchholz is a senior scientist with the think tank Spatial Informatics Group, leading its forest and agriculture team. “The challenge with biomass is it’s a very wide field,” Buchholz says. “With biomass, we can point to horrible examples from sustainability and carbon perspectives, down to other systems that are no-brainers in terms of carbon friendliness and sustainability.” Buchholz stresses this issue is not black and white. “What really pains me is when I see biomass advocates go for a very black-and-white picture—‘biomass from forests is carbon-neutral, period,’” he says. “The industry should point out clear examples where it’s not carbon neutral, and then firewall itself against them while making the case for biomass management.” Buchholz is based in Missoula, Montana, an area he says has suffered the past 15 years from poor fire management. “It’s very clear that when you look at the carbon implications of doing nothing, forests will go up in smoke,” he says.

The National Science Foundation recently shared new research published in Ecohydrology that forest thinning through fires or mechanical means may not only reduce wildfire intensity, but also save billions of gallons of water lost to evapotranspiration, easing water shortages in droughts. The U.S. Forest Service says that up to 8 of the 21 million acres it manages in California need immediate restoration. Another 58 million acres nationally also require restoration.

While forest thinning reduces the carbon stock initially, Buchholz says this can be very beneficial to forest health. “A thinned forest will sequester less carbon initially, but when fire strikes, the loss of carbon is reduced so storage capacity is buffered,” he says. “The forest is more resilient, and fires not as volatile. And in many cases, it’s a no-brainer to use that material from fuel thinnings to produce power or heat, rather than pile-burning it, like what’s going on now.”

Dogwood Alliance is an environmental group focused exclusively on issues facing the Southeast U.S. and is strongly opposed to development of the wood pellet industry. “I think first and foremost, what’s happening in North Carolina and Southeast Virginia where there’s been a huge expansion of industrial wood pellet manufacturing is completely unsustainable,” says Adam Colette, Dogwood Alliance program director. “We should not be logging forests to ship pellets overseas to burn for electricity. That’s not an efficient use of our resources.”

There is a misperception by some that, as Colette says, forests are being logged for pellets, but this simply isn’t the case. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative is an organization providing certification for forestlands with requirements to protect water quality, wildlife habitats and replanting trees post-harvest. SFI provides two broad types of certifications: One is for companies or organizations that own or manage forestlands; and the second is for fiber sourcing, for those such as paper companies, sawmills or pellet producers who source directly from forests. “In the Southeast, there is usually a mix of products coming off the lands in any given harvest,” says Nadine Block, SFI chief operating officer. “The larger trees are going to sawmills, and the smaller trees that are not mature, or that were thinned, might be going to pellet or paper mills. I think it’s worth considering the economics. The pellet industry is going after low-value material. Pellet mills aren’t able to pay for big trees, the economics don’t bear out. Larger trees go to higher-value markets.”

Enviva, considered the world’s largest wood pellet producer, can produce 3 million tons of pellets annually, with another 1.2 million tons of capacity under construction. The company operates in the U.S. Southeast and has become a target for Dogwood Alliance. Jennifer Jenkins, vice president of Enviva and chief sustainability officer, affirms Block’s position. “Landowners don’t typically grow or harvest timber for wood pellets,” Jenkins says. “Forest owners are rational, economic actors and want to produce as much sawtimber as possible to maximize their revenue per acre, since sawtimber is worth many multiples of what pulpwood is worth. The wood that Enviva takes is the lowest-quality wood from a given harvest.”

Certified Sustainable
Enviva holds multiple third-party chain-of-custody certifications, including Forest Stewardship Council, Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, and SFI. “We are also certified under the Sustainable Biomass Program,” Jenkins says. “The local forest products markets are integrated such that a variety of products are produced from the same forest tract. Our Track & Trace data confirm that, on average, we receive about 30 percent of the wood produced during a timber harvest. That number is relatively low because the wood we procure is a byproduct of a traditional sawtimber harvest. This is low-grade wood fiber, often diseased or crooked, or the tops, limbs, slash and understory that doesn’t have higher value elsewhere.”  

Certification holds forest owners responsible for what happens on the ground, but as Block says, it does not speak to specific markets. Colette says Dogwood Alliance recognizes FSC certification as the strongest system. It worked with major paper producers in the South to increase FSC intake and map endangered areas around mills to keep loggers from harvesting in those sensitive areas. “When we talk about certification, there’s a difference between traditional and additional demand,” Colette says. “If we add up the new pellet mills that have popped up in Southeast Virginia and North Carolina, and combine that with the fact that we’ve had mill transitions in the area but no major mill closures, we’re adding another 5 to 6 million greenwood tons of market demand. That’s a massive increase. And end-use is a big deal here. Certifications don’t look at end use, they certify activity on the ground. In the case of biomass, it’s being burnt in power stations, pumping all that carbon into the atmosphere. There are deep debates on carbon, but the science is clear from our perspective that it’s bad for the climate. We don’t believe something can be certified as sustainable whose primary goal is to address climate change, when in fact, the exact opposite is happening.”

On the surface, it seems rather clear biomass, with its relatively short lifecycle and ability to store atmospheric carbon, is carbon beneficial. “It’s hard to quantify long-term carbon storage,” Nobert says. “It depends on the species and whether they’re being cut after 20, 40 or 100 years, as the carbon sequestration in each of those will be different. And also, from our national leadership there’s still no consensus. Furthermore, the government offers incentives and subsidies for wind and solar, but they haven’t done the same for biomass, so that tends to sway public opinion.”

Buchholz says he is frustrated that certification bodies have not gotten more involved in the biomass debate over the past 10 years. “In the end, it comes back to the question of sustainability vs. carbon,” he says. “Biomass can be good from a carbon standpoint, but horrible sustainability-wise, and vice versa. Biomass from an FSC-certified forest might mean it’s coming from a management system that’s very sustainable, but does very little from a carbon context. I think the carbon aspect cannot be disconnected from the forest-management piece of it. It should be held up against the same standards.”

According to Jenkins, Enviva’s pellets are both sustainable and carbon-beneficial. “Our responsible wood sourcing [guidelines] lay out precisely and in great detail the steps we take to ensure that our wood is procured sustainably,” she says. “We are proud of the work we have done to ensure and promote responsible sourcing, and we continuously strive to do even better.” Regarding greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), Jenkins lays out three simple facts. “One, forests will be managed to produce wood products for human use regardless if any particular segment of the forest products industry exists,” she says. “Two, landowners respond to robust forest products markets by planting more trees. And three, there is an empirically proven, positive relationship between forest harvest and forest growth. It’s worth noting that even after accounting for all of the uses of forest products—for any purpose—forest inventory in the Southeast U.S. has more than doubled since 1953. I think anyone with any degree of intellectual honesty should conclude that wood pellets are carbon-beneficial on a life-cycle basis.”

Role of Markets
Despite additional markets such as pellets—and perhaps even because of them—Nobert says the growth of trees in U.S. forests continues to outpace harvesting. “One trend we’re seeing is the forests we have now have a greater volume of biomass than they did 70 years ago,” she says. “That’s a complicated, complex answer to the question why, but when we implement appropriate management, we see trees grow bigger and faster.” Block says data proves this. “We see more growth than mortality across the U.S., including the Southeast,” she says. “We recognize it’s not just about acres, but well-managed forests. That’s where certification comes into play. We want more growth than harvesting, but other factors, such as biodiversity and water quality, need to go hand in hand. Research ties markets to overall growth. Where we’ve seen a decline in markets—for example, the recession and housing crisis of the late 2000s—this puts  negative pressure on forestland. Landowners have choices, many driven by economics, so if markets decline, they begin to look at alternatives. Forestlands in the pathway of urban sprawl, for instance, can be lost.”

Colette says Dogwood Alliance does not see losing forestlands to development in the Southeast as a concern. “For these rural areas in the South, development is not a big threat,” he says. “We’re not talking about suburban Atlanta here. Remote areas would love to have any kind of development, so large tree tracts converted to apartment complexes is not a legitimate argument here. We need economic development there, but not like this. These people are saying, ‘Give me a Burger King.’”

Interestingly, Burger King is owned by Restaurant Brands International, and in advance of its annual general meeting of shareholders in June, international consumer group SumOfUs submitted a shareholder proposal on behalf of the British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) calling on RBI to issue annual reports to investors providing quantitative metrics on supply chain impacts on deforestation, including progress on time-bound goals for reducing such impacts. “As a shareholder, we want to see RBI set measurable goals and clear timelines for reducing its supply chain impacts on deforestation, thereby improving the sustainability of its business practices,” says Stephanie Smith, BCGEU president.

Landowners in Nebraska pay up to $1,000 an acre to manage forestland, Nobert says. “That’s where markets come into play,” she says. “Right now in Nebraska, there’s not a lot of markets for wood, so there’s not a lot of incentives for landowners to manage their land. They have to pay to do that and can’t recover these costs without markets. Where we see strong markets, we see more incentives to manage land and keep forests healthy and resilient.” She says two-thirds of Nebraska forestland owners do not plan to sell their land. “They’re not harvesting, turning a profit and dumping,” she says. “They’re harvesting for sustainable forestry for their kids, grandkids—it’s legacy property, basically. They want to improve the health and resiliency of their forests, and they’re paying to do that. We see what happens when there is no harvesting—we get overly dense forests. And we know that’s not working for us. We also see that if we harvest and don’t manage for regrowth, sometimes, depending on the location, invasive species will overtake the natives. So we need to manage for that. That’s one of the easiest arguments to understand why regrowth management is needed, and why we need to sustainably harvest and promote forest health.”

While Colette says Dogwood Alliance does not believe the development argument applies to the Southeast, he recognizes the threat of forestland being lost to agriculture. “The ag markets argument really applies to landowners already managing industrial-scale plantations,” he says. “Enviva is primarily sourcing hardwood, and because Enviva exists, there are more knocks on doors to small family landowners and more cutting.” Enviva’s use of wood harvested from bottomland forests is particularly contentious for Dogwood Alliance, Colette says, from an ecological perspective. “The highest value of these wetland forests is in the services they provide in terms of flood protection, water quality, carbon sequestration and biodiversity,” he says. “According to our new report, those are 15 times more valuable than those wetland forests would be logged.” Jenkins notes that bottomlands make up only about 2 percent of Enviva’s sourcing enterprise-wide. “Bottomland forests are part of the working forest landscape in the areas where we operate, and there are good ways to harvest these working forests to provide incentives for landowners to keep these forests as forests, without doing harm to the environment or the overall ecosystem,” she says.

Enviva has worked with its stakeholders to develop robust processes to ensure it doesn’t purchase from forests that are especially sensitive, which it deems high conservation value. It also does not purchase from lands that, once harvested, will be converted to other uses. “And we also know that in many cases, harvest of a low-quality tract will enable regeneration of higher-valued trees such as cypress,” Jenkins says. “As we do for all of our purchases, we agree to purchase from bottomlands only when we believe that harvest is the best outcome for that tract of land. We’ve also made tangible commitments to wetland forest conservation through our Enviva Forest Conservation Fund, and in the first three years of the program we’ve contributed to protecting more than 10,000 acres of sensitive forests.”

According to Enviva’s Track & Trace data, from 2011-’16, forest area in its supply base has increased by more than 300,000 acres, and forest inventory by 150,000 tons. “The Southeast U.S. is one of the world’s most important timber baskets, and the region is responsible for one-sixth of the timber production that occurs globally every year,” Jenkins says. “The forests in this region are owned overwhelmingly by private landowners who manage forestland to provide the steady stream of wood products that our economy and society depend on, while producing income for their families over time. The forest products industry is an important contributor to local economic health in the areas where we operate. The industry provides jobs for local residents and income for landowners, providing them with economic incentives to replant and keep their land forested, rather than converting the land to other uses.” She says only about 17 percent of forestland in the Southeast is certified to any standard. “We recognized the need to go beyond certification to provide assurance that we conduct the most responsible sourcing possible,” Jenkins says. “We implemented our industry-leading Track & Trace program in order to give our customers and stakeholders more visibility into our sourcing practices because we want people to know where our wood is coming from. We invite everyone to take a look at our website, where we publish—tract-by-tract—our sourcing data as evidence of our commitment to transparency.”

Mixed Landscape
Colette says there is a big difference between natural forests and plantations. “We firmly hold the stance that a plantation is not a forest,” he says. “It’s a collection of trees meant to be logged. Oftentimes, when sustainable forest management or issues of sustainability are brought up, the whole focus is on deforestation—losing forestland. What is often forgotten about is the other ‘D’ word, which is degradation of our forests. The major issue in the Southeast is, a degraded forest is a vulnerable forest. When natural forests are cut and converted to monoculture pine forests, this technically still counts as forested land, but we’ve degraded its ability to be a resilient ecosystem. We’ve created not a deforested landscape, but a degraded one. And when forests are degraded, we open them up to additional threats, such as insect infestation and fire.” 

When Europeans first came to North America, there were huge forests covering the entire continent. “No one was ‘managing’ these forests,” Colette says. “I understand the dynamics of increased population, but the idea that we must manage nature because nature can’t manage itself—we’re forgetting how life on this planet was created.” Nobert says since many of our old-growth forests were cut centuries ago, it would take a minimum of 400 years to reestablish them as they were when settlers arrived in North America. “There’s a process of succession,” she says. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to mimic that through management.” What is important to remember about managed forests, Nobert says, is unlike agricultural crops, the tree species grown—whether in the West or Southeast—are native to the area. “So if we’re harvesting eastern hardwoods that naturally regenerate, we’re mimicking disturbances that would naturally happen through tornados or wildfires,” she says. “It’s probably safe to say our forests are not as diverse as they used to be, and with increased diversity you get increased resiliency, but I wouldn’t say our forests are suffering or are in poor condition. They’re still providing the valuable ecosystem services we need.”

Recognizing the need for a mixed landscape is important. “Not every forest can or should be protected and locked up solely for recreational or ecological value,” Block says. “Our society demands products and benefits from services that come from these forests—paper, wood and packaging, as well as clean water, air, biodiversity and wildlife habitats—so keep in mind the need, hope and desire for different types of forests.”

“To me,” Colette says, “a working forest means a forest that is providing feedstocks to the timber industry.” Block says we must recognize working and managed forests provide environmental benefits too. “It shouldn’t be thought of as a dichotomy, where only products come from working forests and environmental benefits only from standing forests,” she says. “If they’re managed well, forests can produce products such as paper, pellets, sawtimber and environmental benefits like clean water, wildlife and clean air. It’s important to look at forests that way.” Roughly 300 million acres of forestland are certified to the SFI forest management standard. “That’s a huge landscape, a living lab if you will, to try and measure these benefits we’ve talked about,” Block says, adding that SFI is working with nonprofits and universities to quantify these benefits.

Coming Together
Ultimately, Colette says humans must deal with their consumption issues. “What are our limits of sustainability?” he asks. “When you add all that additional demand onto the marketplace, can you continue to certify that as sustainable? There’s been a lot of work to source third-party certified wood for traditional demand, and now you can’t add all this additional demand on top and call it sustainable.” Colette asserts forests in the U.S. Southeast are four times more disturbed than South American rainforests. “They’re degraded,” he says. “It’s a huge problem. We have to recognize that. Some would have us believe that all forestland is the same, but this is clearly not the case.”

For biomass and environmental groups such as Dogwood Alliance to ever see eye-to-eye on the big picture and work toward resolving their differences rather than having an adversarial relationship, Colette says the woody biomass industry must come clean about its real carbon impacts. “That has been an area where we’ve had real hang-ups,” he says. “If we start from that place, this would open the door to further conversation where we could work together.”

Enviva’s position is that this is not an “us-vs.-them” issue. “We engage in a very constructive way on a daily basis with a wide range of environmental organizations and stakeholders interested in environmental stewardship, including the American Forest Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, The Longleaf Alliance, The Forest Trust, and The Forest Stewards Guild, to name just a few, and we are actively seeking new partnerships,” Jenkins says. “The purpose of this engagement—and why we make it a priority—is to share scientific expertise on sustainable forestry, to get objective feedback on how we’re doing, and gather constructive input on how we can do even better. We strive for continuous improvement and have implemented and continue to implement ideas and suggestions from our partners in the environmental community. It’s true there are certain groups that do not wish to work with us to improve sustainability, but these are outliers in the environmental community.”

SFI’s perspective is that focusing on particular markets—this one is good and that one is bad—misses the point. “The key issue,” Block says, “is to look at forests and make sure they’re well-managed, utilize them and ensure we have markets in place to provide incentives to keep forests as forests and appropriate measures in place to ensure thriving forests well into the future.”

Buchholz says it would help to mend the ideological divide if organizations like Dogwood Alliance or Sierra Club, and those in the biomass industry, would accept the validity of each other’s arguments, realize the breadth of biomass, and individualize arguments on a case-by-case basis. The Sierra Club ignored numerous requests to participate in this discussion.

Any sort of sustainability certification is “always a good move” for pellet producers, Nobert says. “I think part of the reason biomass and forestry in general get a bad reputation is our emotional connection to forests and trees,” she says. “It hurts to cut trees down. Overcoming that emotionality by understanding the full cycle is one way to break down those barriers.” She adds that the most legitimate oppositional argument to the woody biomass industry is the issue of carbon storage and intensity—because it can be so variable. “For the pellet industry, working to address that would be my No.1 priority,” Nobert says. “Biomass and forestry professionals, the reason we get into this field is because we do consider ourselves environmentalists. Most of us have gone through training for that. We want the same thing as a lot of environmental groups—protecting our natural resources for generations. That’s the one thing we can lose sight of when we get into the weeds of carbon accounting, emissions and forest management plans.”

Author: Ron Kotrba
Senior Editor, Pellet Mill Magazine
[email protected]