Green energy is among the myriad reasons to keep our national forests open to the “many uses” intended by the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. Federally owned forests comprise 192 million acres. According to some estimates, nearly 80% of this total requires thinning to mitigate risk of fire.
About 1/3 of U.S. energy is used to produce heat. Why not harvest material that might otherwise fuel wildfires and use it to benefit homes, schools, businesses and industry? Cogeneration facilities can even generate economical electricity while producing heat.
Decades of fire suppression and federal logging restrictions have led to dense, low quality national forests, susceptible to insect infestation and rampant wildfires. This is evidenced by millions of acres of trees decimated by mountain pine beetles in western states.
President Bush signed the Healthy Forest Restoration Act signed in 2003 with the intent of reducing fire danger and increasing forest health. But without a free market component, the cost to taxpayers to accomplish these goals far exceeds the $6 billion budget of the Forest Service.
Against the backdrop of forest decline, public demand for alternatives to hydrocarbon energy is on the rise. At the expense of the free market, solar and wind energy have been subsidized and mandated by government. Yet forests offer green energy without new regulations or mandates. Harvesting woody biomass can fortify these ecosystems and provide renewable energy to fuel a sustainable future.
Woody biomass includes low quality and undersized trees unsuitable for lumber or paper, as well as limbs, wood chips, and saw dust. Combustion of this material produces energy in the form of heat and power. Compared to wind and solar, biomass energy is controllable, producing at any time in every season. Wood is low cost and utilization keeps dollars circulating in local economies, creating jobs.
Projects that convert wood material to energy require abundant and steady supplies from local sources. Unfortunately, many national forests have not offered long-term contracts to loggers, sawmills or end users. Even in regions where forestry officials are actively supportive, environmental activists can stymie the process with lawsuits and proposals for wilderness areas.
Biomass energy facilities in the eastern U.S. have turned to privately-owned forests. Such scenarios are often not possible in the west where the vast majority of forests are government owned. In the past two decades, federal timber harvests have decreased by about 85%. Studies show that biomass harvesting is not economical unless combined with a vibrant timber industry. Additionally, hauling material farther than 50 to 75 miles is usually cost prohibitive.
Federal land management policies must change to foster woody biomass energy production. Modern boilers are efficient and emission systems prevent significant levels of pollution. Pollutants are a fraction of what is released by a wildfire in unthinned forest.
Proposed EPA carbon emission rules are another barrier to biomass energy. The regulations treat all carbon emissions the same, despite the fact that wood burning is generally considered as carbon neutral. Burning wood simply releases a portion of the CO2 that was previously absorbed by trees before logging.
Despite the obstacles, entrepreneurs and communities are finding ways to utilize woody biomass energy. Vermont has long been a leader in this regard, utilizing material from privately owned forests to heat many public and private buildings. Wood boiler systems are comparatively expensive to install, but wood is generally 25 to 75% cheaper than other fuels types. Long-term savings are significant.
Successes in Vermont spurred “Fuels for Schools” programs in a number of western states. In the case of Darby, Montana, the schools’ annual heating costs fell by 50 percent and air quality was not sacrificed. Though Darby is surrounded by overgrown national forests, the school district must rely on private owners for biomass fuel.
Ultimately, the fate of woody biomass energy is in the hands of Americans. Politicians and bureaucrats should be pushed to facilitate harvesting in our national forests. While parks and monuments should remain untouched, it’s folly to allow activists to designate huge regions of forest as wilderness, closed to resource development.
Just as important, government at every level must refrain from excessive regulation that precludes wood burning as a source of heat and energy. Without woody biomass energy, the sustainable future of America will likely go up in smoke.
Special thanks to Dr. Steven Bick of Northeast Forests, LLC for providing many helpful leads to research this article.
James D. Kellogg is a water resource engineer in Glenwood Springs, Colorado and the author of Radical Action: A Colt Kelley Thriller. His Right Angles opinion column appears the third Tuesday of each month in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent newspaper. Visit jamesdkellogg.com or email james.jamesdkellogg.com.