Guest opinion: Forest biomass offers Montana promise, pitfalls

Guest opinion: Forest biomass offers Montana promise, pitfalls

30 January 2010

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USA — JOE KERKVLIET: The recent closure of Smurfit-Stone’s paper mill in Missoula has loggers and sawmill operators wondering who will buy their small logs, sawdust, chips and other residues — an important stream of revenue. These questions have prompted suggestions that creating a new market to burn these and other woody fuels for energy offers solutions to overgrown forests, high fossil fuel prices and a struggling wood products industry.

Done right, woody biomass can replace some coal and natural gas, provide new industry for rural communities, create good jobs, and contribute to a prosperous wood products industry. Most important, woody biomass energy can help us to engage in an ambitious campaign to address deteriorating forest conditions caused by past logging, 100 years of fire suppression, and the spread of housing into forestland.

Although biomass plants can burn wood wastes from sawmills, those wastes alone will not provide enough fuel. The majority of the fuels will come from small diameter trees originating from two sources. The first is hazardous fuel treatments designed to make communities safer from severe fire. The second is restoration harvests on overgrown, low-elevation forests suffering from past, high-grade logging and fire suppression. A Montana biomass energy market would, in some cases, help pay the costs of doing good restoration and community fire protection work.

Realistic supply

However, our biomass industry should be built to match realistic expectations of supply. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating an unsustainable system. Current proposals include a 3.2-megawatt biomass plant in Seeley Lake and a 15 megawatt plant in the Flathead. A 10-megawatt plant would require between 3,000 and 5,000 truckloads of fuel per year. So, fueling a larger plant for its 20-30 year lifespan will require forest treatments on about 140,000 acres of forest. This may not sound unreasonable given that there are 21.5 million acres of forest land in Montana, but there are some complications.

First, there are only a limited number of acres in Montana where fuel management and restoration treatments are both economical and politically feasible. For example, biomass removal is typically not appropriate in higher elevation or wetter forests that do not require thinning for ecological restoration or fuels reduction.

Second, about two-thirds of forest land near communities and suitable for treatment is privately owned. Private landowners will require professional help, education and some economic gain to be persuaded to treat their land.

Third, it is important that we don’t vacuum the forest floor for energy production.

Finally, we might only get to do this once. We have inherited a 100-year legacy of overgrown forests, but once we thin out the fuels the first time, the level of harvesting needed to keep fuel loads down will be done at a much lower level. We need to plan ahead now, to anticipate this drop in production.

Retrofitting existing mills

Woody biomass energy is on its way to Montana. Energy companies and economic groups are studying the feasibility of retrofitting existing timber mills, while Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act contains provisions that will promote its use in Montana.

Done right, using biomass for energy can promote forest health, community prosperity and jobs, as well as help protect communities from forest fires. However, it should never be allowed to sacrifice our forest’s clean water or abundant wildlife.

Joe Kerkvliet, of Bozeman, is an economist with Northern Regional Office of The Wilderness Society. He specializes in natural resource, environmental and ecological economics.

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