Promoting forest biomass


Jodi Peterson’s succinct report - “Burning questions about biomass” -- in High Country News' November 8th edition -- summarizes the many issues which surround efforts to develop biomass energy production in the West and elsewhere. Once viewed as a panacea for the region’s energy needs, a way to reduce carbon emissions and a solution for western wildfire problems, sober realities have gradually come to the fore including:

  • Supply: To be economical a reliable supply of biomass fuel is needed, But supplies have proven difficult to sustain. Plants have been scrapped or have stopped generating electricity as a result. At current prices, biomass must originate within 50 miles of the generating plant.

  • Pollution: Biomass energy generation produces air pollution including particulates, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide. With inland Western valleys subject to regular air inversions, dealing with biomass pollution has proven prohibitively costly. Local governments regularly ignore or downplay the pollution and grant air pollution waivers. But residents have challenged proposed biomass developments which violate air quality standards.

  • Funding: Not just biomass plant development but also ongoing biomass energy production requires continuous government subsidies. In the West, promoters of forest biomass as a fuel source have argued that subsidies are justified by the reduction in the risk of catastrophic fire damage which results from biomass logging. But environmentalists have challenged those claims. In an era of massive government deficits, it is unlikely that ongoing subsidies for biomass energy production will be forthcoming.

Under these conditions smart money is moving away from biomass and toward energy investments which are more clearly sustainable. But that does not mean that the true believers have thrown in the towel. Indeed, local biomass promotion groups which have yet to attract capital investment - like Northern California’s Siskiyou Biomass Utilization Group – continues to seek grants and to engage in biomass promotion.

Why are rural Western politicians, fire safe councils and others continuing to push for biomass development in the face of mounting environmental, economic and budget concerns about the impact of biomass development? I think the answer lies in the recent history of Western public forest management.

Once the dominant activity on the West’s public forests, logging has been dramatically reduced in recent decades as a result of concerted and sustained grassroots challenges. The Forest Service has been forced to take this management approach in order to pass legal muster with the federal courts. Beginning with the Clinton Administration’s Northwest Forest Plan, activists has succeeded in reducing national forest logging to rates more compatible with maintaining water quality, wildlife and biodiversity.

But reduction of public forest logging created anger and resentment among rural Western elites. Because cutting more public timber was linked to federal payments to county governments, officials of those governments had become advocates for more and more national forest logging. These elites were at first incredulous and later deeply angry that upstart grassroots environmentalists could succeed in stopping the clearcutting and stream destruction and thereby dramatically reducing the flow of payments to county coffers.

Coverage of the deep anger and resentment felt by these elites eventually faded from the media; it had become too old hat. But that did not mean the anger and resentment went away. If anything those feelings deepened as the Bush Administration failed to return logging to dominance on Western forests.

When a new energy crisis and concerns about climate change spurred a new interest in alternative energy, these frustrated local elites latched onto biomass as their best opportunity to return logging to dominance on western national forests. Dominated by retired loggers, local “fire safe” groups quickly jumped onto the bandwagon.

Western biomass promoters like to point out that our national forests are annually growing much more biomass than is being removed through logging. Sooner or later, they say, this woody biomass is going to burn up. That will produce carbon emissions and air pollution. And so, they argue, it would be better to remove the excess biomass and thereby reduce catastrophic wildfire while producing energy.

The argument appears rational on its face but weak upon closer examination. For one thing, biomass promoters fail to take account of the process of decay which transforms woody biomass into forest soil. That process not only reduces the net annual growth in forest biomass, it also is necessary to maintain forest health and productivity. Over time removing too much biomass from a forest means trees and other plants will grow more slowly. Less forest vigor means less healthy forests.

Furthermore, it is necessary to increase the amount of woody biomass per acre in order to return public forests to mature and old growth conditions. Any forester worth her salt can tell you that an acre of older forest contains much more woody biomass as compared to an acre of younger forest.

Western forests evolved with fire and must burn for western forest ecosystems to function properly. The amount of natural biomass consumption through fire needed to sustain western forest ecosystems is ignored by forest biomass promoters.

Claims about the efficacy of removing forest biomass as a means to reduce wildfire risk are also questionable. Forest thinning projects, which claim to reduce fire risk actually more often increase the risk – at least in the mid and long term. That is because economic realities typically make it necessary to reduce forest canopy to the point where sunlight and reduced competition for water leads to an explosion of new tree and brush growth after thinning. Within five to eight years, fire risk is greater in thinned forest stands than it was before thinning. The risk continues to increase for another 20 to 30 years. Subsequent action to remove the explosion of small trees and brush that follow biomass thinning is uneconomical and rarely takes place.

California fuel break - Opening the canopy too  much encourages the growth of small trees and brush. Photo by author.

When all economic and ecological factors are considered, energy production from forest biomass looks like a losing proposition not only for local economies but for taxpayers and the forests themselves. But don’t expect that to deter Western rural elites from promoting forest biomass utilization for energy production. These folks have been taught to always be on the lookout for the next taxpayer subsidy opportunity. And they have a social motivation for promoting biomass which is powerfully rooted in deep anger and resentment. Given the state of federal and state budgets as well as the legal framework that governs public forest management, however, it is likely these elites will continue to be frustrated and will only become angrier in the future.

I continue to hope for the emergence of a new style of Western rural politician – politicians who are not as angrily anti-environmental and who are not always looking for the next taxpayer subsidy. A few politicians of this style are emerging in the rural West; but they remain vastly outnumbered by those of the more traditional persuasion.

Schemes and scams for public forest biomass production will continue as a feature of the western scene for years to come. Whether those schemes and scams will succeed, however, looks increasingly unlikely. Rural Western politicians might find more success were they to promote energy technologies which are truly clean and green. But that would require politicians who look forward rather than looking back. 

Felice Pace has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1975. For 15 years, he worked for and led the Klamath Forest Alliance as Program Coordinator, Executive Director and Program Director. He remains part of the Alliance’s Core Group, and now consults with environmental and indigenous organizations on fund raising and development. He currently resides at Klamath Glen, near the mouth of the Klamath River.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

It's complicated
Doc Baker
Doc Baker
Nov 17, 2010 04:56 PM
And Felice Pace did HCN readers no favors by over-generalizing the issue of utilizing forest biomass for various kinds of energy production. That's not to say that the essay doesn't contain some kernels of truth, it's just that they are largely written absent the appropriate context.

Take for instance the bit about forest thinning to reduce wildfire risk resulting in higher fuel loads. The programs are actually intended to restore the ecology of appropriate forest communities to the point where low-intensity fire can return to the system and allow the system to develop more naturally. It's a type of system that many ponderosa pine stands evolved with. Allowing more sunlight to the forest floor will stimulate grass and herbaceous plant development but this fuel, as well as any germinating seedlings and brush, would be consumed by understory fires that would burn every 2-12 years leaving the overstory pines intact.

Thinning in these systems is necessary because we've kept fire out of them for so long that the current fuel load is too high and any fire would burn catastrophically. Utilizing this thinned material for biomass production would be in lieu of simply piling and burning (or chipping and leaving) and would reduce overall CO2 emissions.

That's entirely different that re-establishing an old-growth west-side forest with high loads of course woody debris on the ground, a condition that burned only infrequently, if at all but where thinning could produce larger, healthier individual trees that would more quickly approximate the 'old growth' sizes.

I have seen thinning programs mis-applied but Mr. Pace seems to be willing to paint with a broad brush and condemn all of them. By the way, the picture is of a shaded fuel break, intended to minimize crown fire spread and the intensity of a wildfire making catastrophic fires easier to control. They are not thinned and then left alone for 10-15 years; they are maintained to keep the shaded-fuel break functional -- another example of needing the correct context to evaluate the outcomes.
Where are you from?
Timothy M Sowecke
Timothy M Sowecke
Nov 18, 2010 10:40 AM
I completely agree with Doc's statements regarding Felice Pace's over generalization of the situation in the west. I'd like to remind Felice that the West is not simply California, Oregon, and Washington. Furthermore, Pace makes some incredible statements about the accumulation of woody debris on forest floors that are simply fallacious. Doc does well to resolve this information, and I might add (for Pace's erudition) that while there is an optimal amount of woody debris depending on a number of variables, an excess of the woody debris Pace seems to cherish will lead to extreme fire conditions that will essentially sterilize the soil. Furthermore, Pace makes no reference to conditions causing wood debris accumulation (the interior west has has serious issues -bark beetle and SAD). Lastly, I'm dissapointed with Pace's psycho-projections of "rural politicians", using language such as "they have a social motivation for promoting biomass which is powerfully rooted in deep anger and resentment", and "angrily anti-environmental". This is very poor form from Pace. While I am a huge fan of HCN as a domain for free speech and information dissemination, this article does little but reinforce the adversarial dynamic of environmentalists vs. well, everybody! Here in Wyoming it's not uncommon to run into your legislator while fishing, skiing, hiking, etc., and conversations are candid and concerned with our backyard and the maintenance of our natural resources. I encourage Pace to have a conversation with his local politicians and get to know the complexity of these problems before making such misinformed assumptions, and please remember Pace, we're all in this together!