FOREST BIOMASS: FOREST USE OR FOREST ABUSE?
COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 17 Feb 2010
The Taking Tree
Chances are you’ve read Shel Silverstein’s "The Giving Tree," the classic children’s story about a boy who keeps taking from a tree – apples for eating, branches to build a house, the trunk for a boat – until there’s nothing left but a stump. The message is clear: forests give us a lot, but there’s such a thing as taking too much. While the story touches only on a tree’s material uses, there are far more indispensable – as in can’t live without – uses trees provide us with such as clean air, pure water, fertile topsoil and a livable climate.
But it’s not about the use of one tree. It’s about the abuse of entire forests, living ecosystems that regulate basic life processes that all human and nonhuman life depend on for survival. Flood control, erosion prevention, even the regulation of rainfall patterns depend on intact forest ecosystems. Forests store such vast quantities of carbon in trees, leaf litter and soil that NASA claims logging the world’s forests to be the second largest source of human-caused global warming gases, 25-30 percent of the total according to the United Nation’s Food & Agriculture Organization.
Jared Diamond’s book "Collapse" documents the destruction of forests to be a leading cause of the downfall of civilizations like Easter Island. The modern day tally? Humans have consumed 60 percent of natural forests worldwide and over 95 percent in the US.
It’s possible for us to take what we need from forests without destroying whole ecosystems in the process. But it requires thinking about all forest benefits over the long term, rather than the easiest to exploit over the short term. Preserving all remaining natural forests, while employing responsible, selective logging practices in designated forests, would provide necessary forest products, jobs and stimulation of local economies, while protecting the ecosystems that keep us alive.
To further remove the stress from forests, we can turn to alternative substances whenever possible, especially when the alternatives are more efficient and economical, as is the case with hemp, flax and kenaf for paper production. Instead, industrial hemp production remains illegal in the US, despite 16 states having passed pro-hemp legislation.
Still, forests continue to be devoured at an average rate of eight million hectares per year, and we are on the cusp of beginning a brand new kind of forest butchery, one that has every possibility of being the final nail in the coffin: forest biomass for electricity and liquid fuels.
"Waste" Not, Want Not
Climate change and the end of the age of cheap oil leave no question about ending our dependence on fossil fuels. Solar, wind, tidal and micro-hydro, as well as efficiency, conservation and city-planning measures – combined with a serious re-examination of lifestyles – should be priorities for government, industry and citizens. But in kicking our fossil fuels dependence, let’s make sure the alternatives aren’t just as bad – or even worse.
Don’t worry, says the biomass industry – the newest "branch" of Big Timber – we’re just going to convert forest "waste" into electricity and liquid fuels. And what exactly is this waste? Basic forest ecology shows forests are nothing without their soil, which is nourished through the decomposition of dead tree trunks, branches, bark, leaves, needles and cones. After logging, the tops of trees, branches, and other organic material, called "slash," is left on the forest floor to fertilize damaged and depleted soils. The waste that biomass opportunists want to remove from the forest to power the American way of life is actually the forest’s future soil.
Now that we’re talking about logging, let’s take a look at what passes today for forest "management." The vast majority of forest waste in the US is the aftermath of highly destructive, toxic pesticide-dependent, soil eroding and compacting, clearcut logging on industrial forest lands, or the eradication of the last 5 percent of native forests, found mainly on public lands. Ecological and economic realities necessitate replacing current forest practices with responsible, selective logging methods. Using forest waste for electricity or liquid fuels means further subsidizing toxic clearcutting and native forest liquidation.
But even if you’re O.K. with clearcutting and old growth logging, it’s hard to ignore a statement made by RISI, the leading information provider for the global forest products industry, which claimed: "the perceived overabundance of ‘waste wood’ in the nation’s forests is simply not there." Now, factor in a collapsed housing market and its subsequently lower demand for timber – and therefore slower pace of logging – and where is all this waste going to come from?
Fanning the Flames of Fire Hysteria
"Obtaining a consistent supply of woody biomass from federal lands is one of the primary impediments to developing a biomass utilization sector," said pro-biomass nonprofit Sustainable Northwest. The biomass industry has for many years acknowledged the need for fresh feedstock. In 2003, the so-called Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) was passed into law with a priority purpose to "reduce wildfire risks to communities." So far, so good, right? But the second purpose of HFRA was "to authorize grant programs to improve the commercial value of forest biomass." Forest biomass, not community protection, is the reason the Forest Service’s top priority is opening up 180 million acres of western public forests to the chainsaw.
Jack Cohen, research scientist at the Fire Sciences Laboratory in the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station said:
home ignitability, rather than wildland fuels, is the principal cause of home losses during wildland/urban interface fires. Key items are flammable roofing materials and the presence of burnable vegetation immediately adjacent to homes. Intense flame fronts (or crown fires) will not ignite wooden walls at distances greater than 40 meters or 130 feet.
So, has HFRA taken these common-sense measures to protect communities?
Instead of focusing on protection around homes, the Forest Service has put lives and property at risk by abusing HFRA to log large trees in backcountry native forests miles from any town. A couple of examples include a project in Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest, with portions of the project 30 miles from the nearest town, or one in the Okanogan National Forest in Washington which focused on big trees up to 21 inches diameter.
What’s the Forest Service’s excuse? Their basic argument is that after 75 years of (sometimes successful) industrial fire suppression, hundreds of millions of acres of western forests have built up excess "fuels," which must be removed to prevent "catastrophic" wildfires. Few question the need to return the natural and essential cycle of wildfire to our western forests. Yet, many forest types go several decades and often centuries between wildfires. It is a dubious assumption that all of these forests are out of their centuries-long natural wildfire regimes after little more than a few decades of – often ineffective – fire suppression.
Let’s say we turn a blind eye to the science of fire regimes, as biomass advocates would prefer. Strange questions still remain, like: does thinning forests actually slow fires? Modern science demonstrates that large wildfires are more a product of drought and low humidity, than fuel levels. If conditions are ripe, especially with high winds, wildfires can burn across hundreds of acres of clearcuts, much less thinned forests. Ecologist George Wuerthner pointed out that during 2003’s Biscuit Fire in southwestern Oregon "low-density, widely spaced Jeffrey pine growing on serpentine burned up even though their natural stand density is much lower than what you are left with under even aggressive thinning."
Not only does evidence suggest that thinning doesn’t stop big wildfires, it might actually make things worse. Thinning a forest opens it up to sunlight, which dries the forest and also exposes it to winds, which can hasten the spread of flames during wildfires. With climate change making summers hotter and drier, there is no question that forest fires will be more prevalent in our forests, no matter the fuels level. The solution is to make homes FireWise and encourage zoning laws to limit sprawl into the forest. We have laws against building homes in flood plains, so why not fire plains?
It’s likely that even biomass proponents themselves realize forest waste can never provide enough feedstock to power an entire industry. But it’s a way for them to get their foot in the door, to get the facilities up and running. Then, once the investments have been made, they can move toward their end game: converting whole trees into biomass and biofuels. By that time, the industry will be entrenched and it will be too late to stop them.
While many of those in favor of forest biomass continue to deny any long term plans to use whole trees, it’s actually already happening. An aerial photograph of the McNeil biomass plant in Burlington, Vermont, showed a yard stacked with whole trees awaiting the chipper. Other instances in the Wendell State forest in Massachusetts and forests in Maine and Canada demonstrate the same pattern of whole trees falling to the chainsaw for biomass facilities.
If biomass’s end game is the use of whole trees, then we are flirting with disaster. It is simply not possible to provide even a fraction of the electricity and fuels currently consumed in the US from forests. According to David Pimentel, Cornell professor and White House adviser: "to sustain our lives and activities we are burning 40 percent more fossil energy than the total amount of solar energy captured by all plant biomass … this includes all the solar energy captured by agricultural crops, forests, lawns, and natural plants." To keep the lights on using trees, we’d need entire continents’ worth. And it’s doubtful other countries are going to want to share.
According to EnergyJustice.net, 417 biomass facilities where trees and forest waste are burned for electricity currently operate in the US. One hundred and nine more are proposed across the country.
In 2009, Meg Sheehan of the Stop Spewing Carbon campaign with help from other groups such as Massachusetts Forest Watch and Concerned Citizens of Franklin County among others, led the effort to get a measure on the ballot that will give Massachusetts citizens the chance to vote against using public "clean" energy subsidies to support biomass facilities. Biomass opponents sometimes refer to the spread of biomass facility proposals across the US as the "BioMonster." One gets the image of a hulking troll slathered in "green" paint stalking the continent, chewing up forests and farting out clouds of toxic, polluting smoke.
Speaking of monsters, oil giant Chevron and timber beast Weyerhaeuser have recently ganged together to create something called Catchlight Energy. No, not a solar panel company, but a scheme to grow whole trees to turn them into gasoline. And then there’s gene-splicing Goliath ArborGen and its plans to grow genetically engineered, cold-hardy eucalyptus monocrops for biofuels and paper pulp. ArborGen currently has a request in with the Forest Service to grow 260,000 GE eucalyptuses across the southern US. Which would give a whole new meaning to southern plantation.
It’s clear the BioMonster poses many threats from forest depletion to air pollution to climate disruption. But often neglected is how funneling forests into biomass will compete with one of the most basic and common uses of wood: home heating. While the highest and best use of a tree is certainly not to be burned, studies have demonstrated that burning wood for heat to be more than twice as efficient as burning it for electricity, and roughly eight times as efficient as converting it to liquid fuels. Wood stoves are far from the cleanest technology on the planet, but hundreds of thousands of often low-income families count on wood to keep them warm through cold winters, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Starting up a market for forest biomass will create enough competition to sharply spike the price of firewood for already cash-strapped families. Are we really going to force families to shiver in the cold so we can charge our i-things?
"Know When to Say When"
It’s not about the use of trees; it’s about the abuse of forests.
Common sense says we must adapt genuinely sustainable, selective forestry techniques to replace toxic clearcutting and native forest logging. Evidence suggests we reform our current abusive forest practices by focusing on alternative substances, such as hemp for paper and cob for building, not to mention cutting back on our habits of conspicuous consumption and waste. Yet, solutions such as hemp are against the law in the US, forests still fall at a breakneck pace and here we are just about to start up a brand new habit.
The biomass/timber industry denies they’re addicted to an unsustainable supply of trees. They just want a taste, they say, just a little bit of waste here and there. Nothing more. They’ve learned to control their past desires and will prove it – if only you give them the key to the liquor cabinet.
Alcoholics are never really "cured." They can control their impulses, but the desire to drink never goes away. The same thing goes with forest abusers. Do the American people really want to enable the biomass/timber industry to suffer a relapse? A relapse from which forests – and ultimately our nation – might not recover?
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