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If You Build It, They Will Cut

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Generating biomass energy doesn’t result in more logging, according to the biomass industry, whose spokespersons claim facilities only make use of “waste” wood already coming from existing logging operations.

Ron Kotrba, Senior Editor for Pellet Mill Magazine, wrote in the May/June 2015 issue that biomass is the “most unlikely of the forest products to drive the general practice of forestry in the U.S.”

Kotrba believes that the notion of biomass “driving forestry practices in the U.S. is a purposefully deceptive scare tactic used by some in an attempt to influence the perceptions of policy makers and the public.”

Chris Matera, director of Massachusetts Forest Watch, a grassroots forest advocacy group based in Northampton, has long warned that “wood fueled biomass energy will add tremendous pressure, and further degrade already stressed forests.”

“Existing wood-fueled biomass facilities already cut and burn enormous amounts of whole trees for fuel,” said Matera, “and any new facilities will only add more logging pressure.” 

Clearly, opinions differ among the biomass industry and its critics, leaving the question: do biomass energy facilities increase logging?

Federal and state agency personnel, along with members of the biomass industry, have made statements demonstrating that the construction of a bioenergy facility is likely to result in a local increase in logging, including in National Forests, by opening an additional market for the sale of trees that might have otherwise been left in the forest to grow.

Brad Flatten, Stewardship and Timber Sales Specialist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, was quoted in “Wood Supply Assessment for Commercial-Scale Biomass Power Cogeneration and Biomass Utilization Projects in Central Washington,” saying the establishment of biomass energy facilities in Washington state “may provide a market for small-diameter material typically generated from fuels treatment…and potentially increase the number of treatment acres.”

In other words, controversial “fuel reduction” logging projects, which many scientific studies suggest aren’t effective at reducing the likelihood of a large wildfire, may expand in scale if a biomass energy facility will purchase the trees.

Biomass energy, said Eric Lamfers of the Washington Department of Natural Resources in the “Wood Supply” document, “affords treatment of areas that normally could not be treated without market-based opportunities.” This statement also makes it evident that some Washington forests would be left unlogged without the existence of biomass energy facilities.

Wind River Biomass, a combined heat and power biomass energy facility proposed for Stevenson, Washington, plans to source trees from the nearby Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

A biomass gasification project in North Fork, California that would burn trees to create electricity, heat and biochar would also increase logging, including in the Sierra National Forest, according to a May 6, 2015 article in the Sierra Star.

Jim Branham, executive officer for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, one of the entities behind the North Fork facility, was quoted as saying that biomass projects such as his are “key to increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration and protecting our forests and communities from large, damaging wildfires.” Once again, a biomass energy facility is acting as a driver for more “fuel reduction” logging projects.

While some biomass energy facilities spur logging in anticipation of the natural process of wildfire, other facilities trigger logging after a burn. For example, a new biomass facility in Kauai drove the cutting and burning of 15,000 tons of pine and eucalyptus trees in Kokee that wouldn’t have been logged otherwise, according to March 5, 2015 article in the Washington Times.

An April 4, 2015 article in Timberline reported that Watertown, New York-based wood chipping company, Pala Wood Service Company, “had all but stopped chipping [trees] due to a lack of a customer base for that product.” Yet, according to Pala Wood’s owner, Bruce Strough, the recent opening of ReEnergy Black River, a 60-megawatt biomass power facility in Fort Drum, “represented an opportunity to get back into the market.”

As more biomass energy facilities are built across the U.S., including ones in close proximity to National Forests, only time will tell whether we’ll see a resulting uptick in logging proposals, as biomass opponents warn. But, if statements by those working on the ground to advance bioenergy are accurate, more logging specifically to fuel these facilities is probable.