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Should We Log Burned Forests for Biomass Energy?

(November 2016 - Volume 7, Issue 11)

 

Forest Service Studies Soil Impacts of Bioenergy Logging

- by Josh Schlossberg, The Biomass Monitor 

A recent study from the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) Rocky Mountain Research Station investigates the potential impacts on forest productivity from logging for biomass energy. While the study focuses primarily on the Northern Rockies region—where only a handful of small combined heat and power and biomass heating facilities operate—many of the findings may be applied to western forests.  

The study, Impact of Biomass Harvesting on Forest Soil Productivity in the Northern Rocky Mountains, by Woongsoon Jang and Christopher Keyes from the University of Montana, and Deborah Page-Dumroese with the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Moscow, Idaho, assesses one of the main environmental concerns surrounding an expansion of bioenergy, the impact on forest soil productivity.  

USFS defines forest productivity as the “integration of all environmental factors encompassing soil productivity, climate, topography, geology, vegetation, and the history of natural disturbances and anthropogenic interventions.” Ultimately, the question is whether logging for bioenergy may impair future forest growth.  

Logging for bioenergy involves removing more organic matter from the forest than conventional logging for lumber alone. The practice of whole-tree logging extracts not just merchantable tree trunks for lumber, but also treetops, branches, and other logging byproducts, and has a “substantial impact on live vegetation,” according to study authors.   

Though whole tree logging is not typically employed in the western U.S. forests, the authors predict that forests will “likely be managed more intensively in the future,” in part for biomass energy. 

Organic matter—woody debris, leaf litter, humus, and duff—plays a “critical role” in forest productivity, and can be found on the forest floor, and in all layers of the soil, including deep mineral soil. Organic matter supports the cycling of soil carbon and sequestration, the availability of Nitrogen, moisture levels, and biodiversity. 

Foresters are concerned that whole-tree logging may affect the cycling of nutrients and water, and compact soil.


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Forest Biomass Utilization Combatting Catastrophic Wildfires 

– by Julia Levin, Executive Director, Bioenergy Association of California & Tad Mason, Registered Professional Forester

California’s 2013 Rim Fire burned more than a quarter million acres; early estimates suggest that damage to the environment and property values could reach $1.8 billion. It destroyed wildlife habitat, released millions of tons of carbon emissions, and damaged key watersheds.

Sadly, catastrophic wildfires like the Rim Fire are increasing in frequency throughout the inland West. Land managers are very focused on proactive strategies to address the unnatural buildup of forest biomass. Forest thinning and hazardous fuels removal are important strategies to return forest landscapes to a healthier and more fire resilient condition. Utilization of this excess forest biomass as a feedstock for renewable power generation can provide a market-based solution that serves as an alternative to current biomass disposal techniques such as piling and burning or leaving biomass material on site.

Western forests are suffering from the combined impacts of past fire suppression efforts, development, and climate change, which is causing higher temperatures, reduced snow pack, invasive species and more intense weather events that trigger wildfires. Together, these factors are causing a perfect storm of weakened, combustible forests that lead to catastrophic wildfires. California has lost more acres to wildfire in the past five years than in the previous seventy years combined. In 2015 alone, California lost an area larger than the state of Rhode Island to wildfire. Other western states tell a similar story.

Catastrophic wildfires are not natural and not part of a healthy forest ecosystem. In the past, smaller wildfires played an important role in restoring forest ecosystems and stimulating new growth. Catastrophic fires, on the other hand, burn hotter and faster over more acres and destroy virtually everything in their path, making natural regrowth and restoration much more difficult.


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The Disconnect Between Myth and Reality in the Rim Fire

– by Chad Hanson, Research Ecologist, John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute

Large fires in the western U.S. have become the stuff of myth in recent years, with the public dialogue surrounding such fires now taking on the character of fish tales. Everything gets bigger, more dramatic, and more extreme with each telling, often resulting in an ever-widening gap between fact and fiction. There is perhaps no fire for which this is more true than the 257,000-acre Rim fire of 2013 in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.  

Demonized by the Forest Service and the timber industry’s allies in Congress as a “moonscape,” where the fire burned so intensely that it “sterilized” the soil, the impression was created in the popular imagination of a landscape overwhelmingly dominated by high-intensity fire effects in the Rim fire, where every tree was killed and little or nothing would grow in the future. One local logging industry advocate claimed, without any basis in evidence, that the Rim fire moved so fast that deer could not outrun it and birds could not fly fast enough to escape. All of these claims were repeatedly reported in the news coverage as if they were fact. In the context of this narrative, pro-logging members of Congress and the timber industry pushed for a massive post-fire logging program on National Forest lands, and the U.S. Forest Service complied.  

But it is now more than three years after the Rim fire, and the smoke has long since cleared, so what is the truth?

Far from the hyperbolic characterizations, most of the Rim fire experienced low- and moderate-intensity fire, while between one-fifth and one-third had high-intensity fire, depending on the estimate. And, on the two fastest fire-spread days, the fire moved at only one-half of one mile per hour.  

In the high-intensity fire patches, abundant natural forest regeneration is occurring, even deep in the interior of the largest patches—in some places mostly oak with widely scattered conifer seedlings and saplings and in other places mostly pine, cedar, and fir regeneration, ranging from dozens to thousands of new trees per acre. 


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The Biomass Monitor is the nation's leading publication investigating the whole story on bioenergy, biomass, and biofuels.

Daily blog and back issues: thebiomassmonitor.org 


Photos: MAIN: Rim Fire (Chad Hanson), Rim Fire (CBS San Francisco), Rim Fire Regeneration (Chad Hanson); SIDEBAR: Mt. Evans Wilderness, Colorado (Josh Schlossberg), Blue Lake Biomass (California Agriculture Online)


Editor - Josh Schlossberg
Associate Editor - Samantha Chirillo
Editorial Board - Roy Keene, Brett Leuenberger, Dr. Brian Moench, Jon Rhodes, George Wuerthner

For submissions, feedback, or questions, email thebiomassmonitor@gmail.com


Editorial

Dear Biomass Monitor Subscriber,

To log or not to log, that is the question…at least when it comes to wildfire and western forests.
 
Commercial logging for lumber has a clear goal: marketable products and jobs. But a lot of the logging out west these days is tied to wildfire prevention and/or restoration, with much of the wood slated for biomass facilities.
 
Some studies have shown that thinning forests can reduce the spread of wildfire, while others have found this not to be the case. A theme emerging in recent science is that large wildfires—the ones people are most concerned about—will burn whether a forest is thinned or not, so long as it’s hot, dry, and windy.
 
In the November issue of The Biomass Monitor, we get two sides of the wildfire/thinning debate and learn how it ties into biomass energy. Julia Levin, executive director of the Bioenergy Association of California and Registered Professional Forester Tad Mason, present the pro-thinning side, while Chad Hanson, research ecologist with the John Muir Project, speaks in favor of forest preservation.
 
Keeping the focus on western forests, our feature piece is on a recent study from the U.S. Forest Service looking into the soil impacts of logging for bioenergy, one of foresters’ biggest concerns with an expansion of this energy source.  


Conference Call

Native American Tribe's Concerns With Biomass Health Impacts

Join The Biomass Monitor on Thursday, November 17 at 2 pm PT / 3 MT / 4 CT / 5 ET where we speak with Jana Ganion, Energy Director for Blue Lake Rancheria (a federally recognized Native American Tribe based in Humboldt County, California), who shares her concerns about health impacts from particulate matter and other air pollution emissions from Blue Lake Power biomass facility, located 1/2 mile from the Tribe.

RSVP on Facebook and email thebiomassmonitor@gmail.com for call-in number. 

Download the audio recording of October's call: "The Future of Biomass Energy in New England," with Evan Dell'Olio, Director of External and Regulatory Affairs for Roberts Energy Renewables. 
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