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Will National Forests Be Sacrificed to the Biomass Industry?

The US Forest Service wants to sell our forests for fuel in the name of wildfire reduction

If we’re to believe the biomass energy industry, the US Forest Service, and a chorus of politicians from both sides of the aisle, we can solve the energy crisis, cure climate change, and eradicate wildfire by logging and chipping our national forests and burning them up in biomass power facilities.

The plotline of their story goes something like this: Years of taxpayer-funded logging and fire suppression in federal forests (at the behest of the timber industry) has resulted in “overgrown” forests crawling with icky bugs, ticking time bombs ready to burst into flames. And the fix, it just so happens, involves even more taxpayer-funded logging and fire suppression, with the trees forked over to the biomass industry to burn in their incinerators and then the “green” electricity sold to utilities and eventually the public — at a premium.  

White Pines National ParkPhoto by Josh Schlossberg 1,600 acres of White River National Forest are being clear-cut. All of the trees are fueling the Eagle Valley Clean Energy biomass facility.

This “burn the forest before it burns you” propaganda is most prevalent throughout the West, but it’s present anywhere there’s public land, with a total of 45.6 million acres across  94 national forests in 35 states qualifying as “Insect and Disease Area Designations” under the 2014 Farm Bill — money on the stump for the biomass industry.

Saving the Forest from Itself

The Forest Service’s logging-for-biomass agenda has “nothing to do with public welfare or the economy,” according to Carl Ross, executive director of Save America’s Forests, an organization that works to protect US forests. Instead, it is simply a way to justify the existence of an agency whose “multi-billion dollar budget is dependent on cutting trees.” With the lumber industry in contraction due to a dismal housing market and tanked economy, the Forest Service focuses on “sick” forests that can only be “cured” through chainsaw surgery to fuel biomass incinerators.

The concept of logging a forest to “save” it is nothing new. It dates back to President George W. Bush’s Healthy Forest Restoration Act in 2003. However, a recent uptick in national forest logging has accompanied a rash of new biomass incinerator proposals, with politicians and even some environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy, cheering the industry on.

Currently, the majority — though not all — of the trees fueling the hundreds of biomass power plants across the country come from private land. However, as you read this, Colorado’s White River National Forest is being clearcut to feed the Eagle Valley Clean Energy biomass incinerator in Gypsum and plans are being hatched to hand national forests over to the biomass industry in Washington, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Minnesota, and Virginia.

Fanning the Flames of Fire Hysteria

As any Madison Avenue advertiser knows, the best way to sell a product is to make people afraid not to buy it: If you don’t wear these sneakers you won’t make the team. If you don’t use this shampoo you’ll never get the girl. If your tax dollars don’t fund the logging of public forests, your house will burn down. Inflaming anxieties around wildfire is one of the preferred tools of biomass supporters.

What the industry leaves out, however, is that “fuels reduction” or “wildfire prevention” logging, like any form of logging, degrades forests by compacting soil with heavy equipment and miles upon miles of logging roads, silts watersheds with eroding soils, and kills fish and wildlife. Industry and agency claims that “fuels reduction” plays the same function as wildfire ignore fire’s ecological role of refreshing forest stands, creating wildlife habitat, and returning carbon and nutrients back into the soil. What’s more, logging for biomass can be even more intensive than logging for lumber since it typically removes the high nutrient tops and branches which would otherwise be left in the forest to slowly decompose.

Luckily, science is catching up to common sense by demonstrating that wildfires, including large, “catastrophic” ones, were historically quite common; that large fires are more a product of drought, high temperatures and winds than “fuel” levels; and that the “effectiveness” of logging for wildfire is “not supported by a significant consensus of scientific research,” with the practice unlikely to slow fires, but instead running the risk of spreading them quicker by drying the forest and opening it to wind.

Humoring industry for a moment, even if logging could stop large wildfires and it was desirable to do so, the chance that a particular logged acreage will experience fire in the coming decades is pretty improbable. Cutting a given stand in a national forest on the off-chance that it might burn is like cutting off your thumb so you don’t hit it with a hammer.

Beetlemania

Biomass supporters also claim that the mountain pine beetle increases the risk of wildfire, giving us yet another reason to log forests. It’s true that beetles might give some of us the willies, but insects have a crucial job in the forest, killing some trees to open up space for fresh growth. And while it’s true that two to three years after a visit from the mountain pine beetle a tree’s dying needles can make it more flammable, following that brief window, a tree is actually less apt to burn than when it was green and less prone to experience a crown fire.  

Naturally, this hasn’t stopped industry from advocating for unscientific “preventative” treatment that involves logging before the beetle even shows up, or afterwards if it does, despite the lack of proof that doing so accomplishes anything. “Most research indicates that there is little or no such relationship between beetle-caused tree mortality and subsequent fire occurrence and severity in lodgepole pine forests,” concludes professor Bill Romme, who teaches forest and fire ecology at Colorado State University, in an article written for NASA’s Earth Observatory. Instead, fire is “controlled primarily by weather conditions” and the amount of fuels, including from beetle kill, is only a “minor influence on fire behavior.”

More research, such as “Effects of Bark Beetle-Caused Tree Mortality on Wildfire,” a report out of Utah State University, demonstrates that “generalizations about the effects of beetle-caused tree mortality on fire characteristics are unwarranted,” while concerns about soil scorching — a favorite boogeyman of the Forest Service — are also overinflated.

Biomass Doesn’t Live Up to Hype

Despite being touted as a “green” energy source by some, biomass energy typically falls short of its many promises.

Enthusiasts argue that biomass provides a valuable, low-carbon source of renewable energy. Trees and food crops grow back, they say, providing a never-ending stockpile of biomass material. Biomass has gotten a lot of attention because it can usually be accessed whenever needed, a benefit not shared with weather-dependent resources like solar and wind. What is more, advocates claim whatever comes out of the smokestack is harmless.  

Unfortunately, particularly when it comes to using trees for fuel, most of these arguments just don’t pan out. Burning carbon-storing forests in an incinerator typically emits higher levels of climate-changing greenhouse gases per unit of energy than a dirty coal-fired plant. Not to mention that when you cut down a tree, you take away its future carbon storing potential. Biomass incinerators also produce harmful air pollution (including asthma-inducing particulate matter and carcinogenic Volatile Organic Compounds). And though biomass energy may be available around-the-clock, it simply isn’t a cost-effective source of energy — it is expensive to produce!

Carving Colorado

Those who want to see what “forest health treatments” feeding biomass incinerators actually look like need go no further than the Ophir Mountain Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project in Colorado’s White River National Forest. There, 1,600 acres are being clear-cut just outside of Frisco in response to the local mountain pine beetle “epidemic,” which peaked between 2007 and 2009 and has since subsided. All of the trees are fueling the Eagle Valley Clean Energy biomass facility.

photoname Photo by Josh Schlossberg Clear-cut forest in White River National Forest.

West Range Reclamation won a bid to pay $8.6 million to log the White River for 10 years, with much of the wood being sold to the Eagle Valley biomass incinerator. Eagle Valley itself has received $40 million in loan guarantees from the Rural Utilities Service, a portion of an annual $12.5 million matching payment for feedstock transportation from the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (part of the Farm Bill), and a $250,000 biomass utilization grant.

So where will Eagle Valley source its wood after the beetle-killed trees run out? Conveniently, the White River National Forest is proposing new “forest health” projects all the time, such as the recently announced Keystone Vegetation Management clearcutting project, with long-term plans to log 220,000 acres of the White River in total. And after those forests are gone, the Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies wants to harness millions of more acres of national forests across all of Colorado and the rest of the Rocky Mountains.

Backcountry logging won’t get us anywhere. It doesn’t protect people from wildfires, though it does divert funding and attention from strategies that actually can, like making homes “firewise” (as demonstrated by the Forest Service’s own research), and it doesn’t provide a clean, economical, or sustainable source of energy. Ultimately, allowing the biomass industry to decimate our national forests just isn’t worth the impacts to clean water, fish and wildlife, flooding and erosion control, and recreation.

Josh Schlossberg
Josh Schlossberg is a Denver, Colorado-based freelance investigative journalist, member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and editor of The Biomass Monitor, the nation’s leading publication investigating the whole story on bioenergy, biomass, and biofuels. He encourages you to contact him at thebiomassmonitor@gmail.com.

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Comments

Check out the 2013 White River Annual Report. It accurately describes the very positive outlook for the forest. After the infestation of 4 MILLION ACRES of mature timber in the pine beetle epidemic, now a modest contract of 1 THOUSAND ACRES will be cut each year for the next ten years to burn the dead pines and generate electricity. Leaving the dead trees there to fall over keeps the next cohort of seedlings from getting started. Logging disturbance is well known to stimulate renewal in conifer forests.

It’s carbon neutral because the trees that grow back will take the polluting Carbon Dioxide (Co2) out of the air. It’s fine for air quality because, unlike home fireplaces and stoves, burning in a commercial boiler is a highly efficient operation with control over pressure, temperature, burn rates, and emissions.

Check out pages 10-11 to read about some of the visitors, volunteers, and supporting organizations that strive to ensure the forest will be as great of a place to visit in the future as it is today. If you haven’t been out to spend time in a National Forest lately, Please do. You’ll be impressed by the great work our Forest Service is doing to care for and manage our National Forests. They deserve our support too.

http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprd3807366.pdf

By Phil Stone on Fri, April 17, 2015 at 11:05 pm

Unfortunately, we are once again, subjected to half of the story journalism. The piece would have merit if it at least recognized mitigating circumstances that call for careful harvesting and at the same time utilizing harvests to absorb carbon footprint reduction quotas imposed by the Kyoto Treaty whereby eradicating a dependency on fossil fuel (coal) is replace by a renewable source of fiber - otherwise used in paper manufacturing in the US - but, experiencing a loss of paper mill production capacity in the country. The writer postulates that forests should not be cut to maintain their life and sustainability - but, what does he suggest is the solution? One cannot have it both ways. The article is myopic in scope and shallow at best. The content is equated to sophomoric drivel - dim-witted and dry. The author is akin to his brethren - reminds me similar to the gathering and hanging of Christmas Tree Lights - where they all hang in a bunch - only half of them are expected to work - and the rest of them are not exactly bright.

By Arthur House on Fri, December 26, 2014 at 5:05 pm

This reads more of opinion and grandstanding than investigative reporting.  If the author had done his homework he would have found that there is so much more to the story than spouting off the oft-recited mantra of the timber industry being cozy with the Forest Service.  That is laughable. It would behoove the author and readers to do their own scientific investigation, maybe even go to forestry school to have the expertise to intelligently debate the solutions to the very real problems the West faces.

By treehugger on Fri, November 07, 2014 at 7:31 am

I think folks need to Recognize & Realize not only the ultimate agenda that some may state the Forest Service and Industry has (which is incorrect) verses the agenda that many groups opposing harvesting might have. Having worked in the West for 15 years and the East for 19 years, and as a Forester (both Academic, Industry, and Government) I can say that forests should generally be managed and can be managed to accomodate a wide range of uses. Those who oppose are mis-informed generally, or have a personnal agenda to enrich themselves. It was interesting that so called enivironmental groups in Montana several years ago using different group names were all housed in the same office / building with each group represented by many of the same folks.

By Ed Stoots on Mon, October 20, 2014 at 12:09 pm

Tree fueled biomass is one of the biggest “greenwashes” on the planet, and literraly threatens the future of that same planet.  See:
http://www.maforests.org/BioCheck.pdf

If anyone truly believes cutting and burning of forests is going to “lower” atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, they need to have their head checked… or find a more enlightened funding foundation.

Thanks Josh for this important article.

By Chris Matera on Fri, October 17, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Good summary of the economical and ecological fraud to “fix” our forests Josh.

The Forest Service continues in their self-serving subsidization of the timber and biomass industries while devaluing our forests and sending us the bill. The agency perpetrators of these scams violate our trust. They should be jailed, not promoted.

Given the thin, low site tree growing sites in the White Forest; the unaccounted damage of logging to the fragile soils; the loss of insulating, carbon storing, nutrient replacing tree boles; and the extended droughts in a warming climate; these biomass logging projects are likely to leave highly flammable brush fields in their wake.

Logging these low sites will prove over time to violate the National Forest Management Act… not to log what you can’t reasonably reforest.

By roy keene on Thu, October 16, 2014 at 9:33 am

An excellent piece that exposes the unholy alliance between the logging industry, power industry, U.S. Forest Service, and other interests that gain from liquidating our forests. The public needs this information to offset a veritable flood of fraudulent pro-biomass propaganda.

The biomass industry can be beaten. In Massachusetts, outraged citizens fought back against several planned massive biomass projects. These dirty, wasteful, and ecologically unsustainable projects have been stopped—at least for now. However, with big money to be made, new projects continue to be proposed. The American people need to demand that cutting down forests to burn them for energy be permanently banned.

By Michael Kellett on Thu, October 16, 2014 at 7:45 am

Helpful analysis of the situation in Colorado.

Here in Maine there is talk of developing the wood pellet industry to feed the European market. With more paper mills closing there is more pulp to go around. Occasional spruce budworm infestations correspond with calls to accelerate cutting to maximize harvest value.

Maine already sends 2.4 million tons of our forest to biomass incinerators every year. Ideally we won’t start sending our wood to Europe to be burnt there as well.

By Andy Jones on Thu, October 16, 2014 at 7:43 am

For many, many years, we in New Mexico have had to obey “burn” and “no-burn” restrictions applying to our fireplaces.  It helps enormously to clear the air. So why is it suddenly okay (and even worthy of subsidy) to produce power on a huge scale by burning WOOD—even shipping it around the world to do so?  This is totally insane, just as it’s insane to promote biofuels that create more pollution than they can ever abate and sparked a global land grab that leaves massive suffering in its wake. 

It’s all a huge boondoggle for the benefit of utility companies, carbon traders and the financiers who own them both.

Folks, I was around for the first green energy push in the late ‘70s (the one Reagan killed), creating first-of-type marketing campaigns for solar and wind equipment makers and also working with solar builders. It was then considered irresponsible in the Southwest to build anything that wasn’t at least passive solar—and the ultimate goal was to add active equipment and get off the grid entirely.

Have you noticed how nobody ever talks about that anymore? This is no accident.

By The Other Katherine Harris on Thu, October 16, 2014 at 6:40 am

Thanks, Josh. Here in Prince George, BC, Canada, the Bowron River clearcut was famous due to being clearly visible from space. When I hike in our local woods, I am always amazed at how fast logs and stumps rot into soils. The moss covered stumps crumble with a slight kick. Frogs and toads everywhere. So how does this make a forest fire hazard? When I questioned the forestry experts, one said that every forest type is slightly different, and those like the Mediterranean chaparral and California do not rot due to lack of rain, and so make a fire hazard. So I suppose it depends on the region and rainfall. I think many biomass facilities are misleading us and are using the debris buildup as a lame excuse. Question the forestry experts and ask for supporting data about the debris buildup.

By Vic Steblin on Wed, October 15, 2014 at 7:50 pm

Thank you for this excellent article.  Wake up to biomass fraud.

By Jane Hendricks on Wed, October 15, 2014 at 2:26 pm

Excellent article!

Here, in Virginia, in the George Washington National Forest, a large 125,000 acre project includes a forest plan amendment to allow “precommercial thinnings” as fuel for a Meade WestVaco incinerator that powers its pulp/paper operations in Covington.  Tree farming circa 2014. We know that forests grow on forests and downed woody debris is a vital part of the soil cycle which will be further short-circuited by roads and erosion…Thanks, EIJ for getting this important information out and around!

By Ernie Reed on Wed, October 15, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Great piece! The impact and cost of maintaining thousands of miles of road on each national forest for hauling out biomass cannot be underestimated as a compelling reason to stop seeing this as a renewable energy source.

By Amy Harwood on Wed, October 15, 2014 at 10:57 am

Thanks for this great article - especially the “cut off your thumb to avoid potentially hitting it with a hammer”. LOL!

In Europe, mandates for renewable energy are very largely going to converting huge coal plants to burn wood (pellets). The wood is being imported to UK (for example) from the southeastern USA and from British Columbia.  in B.C. the “salvage logging” in wake of beetle outbreak is being used as trojan horse - with logging operations being expanded and extended into many areas and over larger areas - even areas where there has been no beetle infestation. The primary impetus is money to be made by failing timber industry, as well as subsidies for energy companies to produce “renewable energy”.  This is totally outrageous… cutting down forests is about the worst thing to be doing in context of global warming and loss of biodiversity we are facing… and forests damaged by beetles need to be allowed to recover, not further damaged!

By Rachel Smolker on Wed, October 15, 2014 at 9:35 am

As one who has fought an environmentally damaging and polluting biomass incinerator project in North Florida that has ruined the lives of some of its neighbors with noise and may bankrupt our city, I greatly appreciate this excellent article by The Biomass Monitor’s Josh Schlossberg.  This is a story that plays out many times across the country.  Thank you, EIJ, for publishing this important piece.

By Karen Orr on Wed, October 15, 2014 at 9:26 am

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