Turning Tragedy into Triumph

What can be done with the millions of U.S. forestland acres devastated by the mountain pine beetle? Biomass power applications are an attractive option, but action must be taken before the trees lose their value.
By Anna Austin
In just a few years, the mountain pine beetle has devastated millions of acres of American forestland. Particularly notorious in the Western U.S. and Canada, the bark-devouring insect has destroyed nearly 8 million acres of trees.

Insect infestations are nothing new and outbreaks occur regularly in nature. However, the current pine beetle epidemic is worse than any in recorded history. Loss of sustainable forests and wildlife habitats are just a few of the possible consequences of the beetle infestation as they leave dead and dying trees in their wake. Leaving these impacted forests untouched increases the chances of wildfires and downed power lines, endangering the communities in these areas.

The pine beetle infestation has prompted many people who are interested or impacted by the issue to recommend swift action be taken. Congress wants to develop a plan and welcomes ideas from those familiar with the pine beetle infestation. On June 16, the House Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands and Subcommittee on Water and Power, held a joint oversight hearing to strategize how to utilize the affected wood and protect the West. A number of congressional members from western states, representatives of the U.S. departments of agriculture and the interior, state and local officials, and business owners testified, stressing the epidemic's negative and potentially devastating impacts. Many stressed the importance of allowing the biomass industry access to the pine beetle-damaged wood. Now with several ideas on the table, Congress is tasked with formulating a strategic plan to responsibly and efficiently manage the materials.

Developing a Plan

During his testimony, U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., said there are more than 633 miles of electrical transmission lines in Colorado in areas of dead or dying trees, and more than 1,300 miles of electrical distribution lines at risk from falling trees or fire. "A large fire could destroy many of these lines, causing power outages for months," he said.

Salazar added that he and several other Colorado lawmakers have introduced legislation that includes different approaches to tackling the problem, and are currently working on a bill they had planned to introduce this summer.

Several senators are working on similar bills. Recently, U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., introduced a comprehensive plan to address the pine beetle epidemic, which has infected much of South Dakota's Black Hills National Forest and the surrounding area. The main thrust of Thune's plan is to create a market for biomass removed from federal forests, which is prohibited by the current Energy Bill. Thune wants the biomass definition in the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007 to be expanded to include biomass removed from federal land, a move that many others in Congress support, including U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.

During his testimony, Polis said a properly crafted, specific and responsible definition for woody biomass within a renewable energy standard has a significant and positive role to play in helping fund wildfire mitigation projects, and would relieve the backlog of projects that the U.S. Forest Service is waiting to have funded.

"This definition can also mean that we see an expansion of cleaner and less carbon-intensive energy sources, like wood pellet heating, that will help combat one of the primary causes of the beetle epidemic-climate change," he said. "Whether including woody biomass in the definition of renewable energy and thus allowing for incentives under a renewable energy portfolio standard, or through the growing prevalence of blue stain wood products as a decorative building material, creating new market demand for the dead and dying trees provides hope to the communities who want to see fuel reduction effort moving forward."

Polis added that wood products, wood pellets, small-scale energy projects and other local businesses can play a key role in mitigating the damage and lessening the danger from the outbreak.

In addition to pine beetle plan, Thune also helped draft the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, which provides payments for the delivery of biomass, including woody biomass removed from federal forests, to biorefineries or biomass power plants. His pine beetle plan calls for full implementation of BCAP from 2009 through 2012, and an extension of the program through 2016.

In mid-July, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced legislation to reform forest management in Montana, which promotes common sense logging to thin beetle-killed trees. In Montana, the pine beetle has increased the mortality rate of mature trees in state national forestlands two-fold in just one year, from 734,500 acres in 2007 to 1.8 million acres in 2008.

Time-Sensitive Issue

Even with the many pending plans and bills, time is truly of the essence. "We've got to get to these materials in a timely manner," says Mark Mathis, Pellet Fuels Institute Government Affairs and Commercial Fuel Committee member. "The biggest hurdles are accessing the materials-there's a lot available, but the tools are not in the tool box, so to speak, at a legislative level," he tells Biomass Magazine. "At a certain point, the [trees are] prone to blow over, and when they do, they rot dramatically faster and any value from the wood is removed."

Mathis says the utilization of this material from U.S. forests and parks will make the wood, which is currently considered a substantial liability to U.S. taxpayers, more valuable. Mathis is also president of Confluence Energy LLC, which is removing affected timber in Colorado and using it to produce wood pellets. The company operates a manufacturing facility in Kremmling, Colo., 70 miles northwest of Denver. "We've been utilizing pine beetle-damaged wood for about the past two years," he says, which amounts to approximately 150,000 green tons per year. "We do some of the hauling and processing, we have about nine different contracts," Mathis says.

Documents created by U.S. Forest Service personnel suggest that the cost to treat some of the existing area in USFS Region 2 or the Rocky Mountain Region would exceed $220 million over the next three years, according to Mathis. By lowering some of the existing hurdles in accessing the dead and dying trees, private industry can add value to the material-the Btu value of which is not affected by an infestation-and dramatically reduce the cost to the taxpayers, he says. Confluence Energy estimates the potential savings at about $75 million over five years.

Mathis presented a plan at the oversight hearing that would require $10 million in grant funding and an additional $20 million in USDA-backed loans. He suggested Confluence Energy build an 8 MMgy to 10 MMgy ethanol plant and said the company has a partnership with a large U.S. fossil fuel company that is interested in a joint venture.

The plan also includes the construction of a 5-megawatt power generation system to satisfy the facility and Kremmling's energy needs; the retrofit and remodel of the company's existing facility to manufacture high-value wood products; the renovation of an existing rail loading facility to transport finished products to market, and the expansion of Confluence Energy's pellet facility to maximize potential output.

Accessibility Problems

A major hang-up involved in retrieving pine beetle-damaged wood is that the government needs to release the land and allow access to those who want to retrieve the trees. "There are some barriers, especially on federal lands out West," says Seth Voyles, PFI manager of government affairs. "There is always some bureaucratic red tape to go through. There is sensitivity about going into these lands, and sometimes there are no roads to get to them. Some roads have limited access and you can't get logging trucks in there. Sometimes timber sales are approved by the government and the purchaser, and suddenly someone files a lawsuit against it and it stops. There's a whole mess of things that could prevent going in and getting the stuff out."

On city-owned land in some areas, agreement can't be reached on strategies to remove dead trees. Decisions need to be made quickly, however, as the dead and dying trees have a limited shelf life-and the infestation will only spread. "It is estimated that once the trees die and turn red they have eight to 15 years before they blow over," Mathis says. "Every minute we talk and do not act, not only are we are losing value, but we are reducing the time private industry has to get a return on their money to justify investing in these types of projects."

Congress will likely utilize testimony from the oversight hearing to determine what can be done on the federal side and in future legislation to help expedite the tree removal process. Voyles says. "There are certain things they don't want to do though, such as short-shift any environmental protocol or standards out there," he said. "They held the oversight hearing to get the best possible strategies that they can to help make decisions, so hopefully something will be done sooner rather than later."

Outside of Congress, those interested in using the dead wood must work with relevant groups such as the forest service to determine project feasibility, as competition for the pine beetle-damaged wood could be fairly stiff. "We are making progress-we spend part of our day, every day, working on this," Mathis says.

With a focus on making the most out of the pine beetle epidemic-whether it's by creating renewable energy and jobs, or facilitating congressional research and forest industry collaborations to prevent other natural disasters, sustainability and responsible procurement practices must also be kept in mind. The longer it takes to deploy a plan of action, the higher the environmental risks and lower the material's value become. Effectively implemented, however, it may be possible to see a silver lining.

Anna Austin is a Biomass Magazine associate editor. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 738-4968.


A Northern Nuisance

The mountain pine beetle infestation isn't limited to the U.S., Canada predicts that by 2013, 80 percent of the mature pine in British Columbia will be dead. The beetle is also posing a significant threat to Alberta's lodgepole pine forests and the Jackpine stands in the country's northern boreal forest.

In 2006, the Canadian federal budget provided $400 million for two years to combat the infestation, strengthen the long-term competitiveness of the forestry sector, and support worker adjustment. More recently, the Canadian Forest Service of Natural Resources Canada, the University of Northern British Columbia, the University of British Columbia, the University of Alberta and the Genome Sciences Center in Vancouver announced a $4 million research project to gain a better understanding of how to predict the location of potential supplies of bioenergy. An emphasis will be placed on understanding the biology of the mountain pine beetle and its host in order to form a predictive model to help guide control measures.

A proposed 60-megawatt biomass power plant near Hanceville, British Columbia, will utilize trees killed by the mountain pine beetle, if Western Biomass Power Corp. and Tsilhqot'in National Government's project is selected as a project for Phase II of BC Hydro's Bioenergy Call for Power.

Pine Beetle Infestation Signs and Symptoms

> The formation of popcorn-shaped masses of resin, called "pitch tubes," on the trunk where beetle tunneling begins. Pitch tubes may be brown, pink or white.

> The appearance of boring dust in bark crevices and on the ground immediately adjacent to the tree base.

> Evidence of woodpeckers feeding on the trunk. Patches of bark are removed and bark flakes lie on the ground or on the snow below the tree.

> The foliage turns yellowish to reddish throughout the entire tree crown. This usually occurs eight to 10 months after a successful attack.

> The presence of live beetles (eggs, larvae, pupae and/or adults) as well as galleries under the bark.

> The appearance of blue-stained sapwood.