Summit keynote: let's turn a sow's ear into a silk purse

By Anna Austin | April 16, 2012

Speaking on a topic that he described as very near and dear to his heart, Arthur “Butch” Blazer, deputy under secretary for the USDA Department of Natural Resources and Environment, told the 80-plus attendees of the Rocky Mountain Forest Restoration & Bioenergy Summit that the current state of the forest management sector in the region is very encouraging. But there is a great deal of work yet to be done.

Blazer delivered the keynote address at event, held April 16 at the Denver Convention Center in Denver, Colo. He emphasized that cooperation among all stakeholders—including the forest products and bioenergy industries, forest and conservation communities and local, tribal, federal and state governments—is essential to restoring forest health and enabling resiliency.

Creating synergies between national and state forest management plans and efforts, is one way to accomplish those goals, according to Blazer. “As a former state forester, I see the action plans that were prepared by the states under the 2008 Farm Bill as one place we can improve and build on,” he said. “Using these plans, the Forest Service and its partners can work together on identifying high priority we move into a new era of planning for our national forest systems lands under the new planning rule, I’m confident knowledge being gained through active implementation of new statewide action plans will result in much stronger and more inclusive management plans for our national forests.”

Blazer challenged conference attendees to think about what they hear during the event, reflect on its validity, and come up with some ideas or improvements. “Those of you here are the experts, and everyone here shares a common belief: that restoring forest health across the landscapes, whether it’s on public land, private land, state land or tribal land, benefits everyone and the environment,” he said. “Healthy, flourishing forests are less susceptible to catastrophic fire, outbreaks of insects and diseases like we’re seeing here in Colorado and other western states, and it’s important that we come together and figure out how to deal with these things.”

Current land management challenges, including, drought, wildfire, invasive species and unprecedented ourbreaks of insect infestations and disease, in the U.S. are enormous, and the Forest Service is facing some of the greatest in history, made worse by climate change. “In 2012, the Forest Service identified somewhere between 65 and 82 million acres of national forests in need of restoration, more than 4 acres out of every 10,” Blazer said. “…so how do we turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse? The answer is to turn the problem into an opportunity.”

Creating a situation in which some of the woody material removed would help pay for the treatment is the main way to do this, from Blazer’s perspective, and there is great opportunity for bioenergy applications. The Forest Service doesn’t have enough appropriated dollars to remove excess trees and brush from the forests for proper restoration, he said, but if a revenue stream could be generated from materials removed, it could pay for itself. “There’s a fundamental need for an integrated forest products industry that includes bioenergy, and we need to do what we can to increase the market value for the material removed.”

Some wood-to-bioenergy potential is already being tapped, particularly in industrial and manufacturing facilities. “In 2007, two-thirds of wood used for cogeneration purposes energy were [used in that sector],” Blazer said, adding that wood-derived liquid fuels are becoming more commercially viable.

But in order to expand the bioenergy opportunities and activities, several things must happen, one of which is securing a large, sustainable supply of biomass. “We also need cost-effective and efficient conversion processes, useful tools to support decision-making, and all of the above to attract investment,” Blazer said. “All of this will take more investments in research and development, and forest researchers are hard at work.”

The challenges are daunting, Blazer added, but there is a huge opportunity to build a future of hope based on forest restoration. “If we can integrate the values we get from healthy, resilient forests, then maybe we can create that silk purse from the sow's ear; maybe we can restore healthy resilient forests for our future. The key is to maximize market value for the woody materials.“