My Turn: Biomass is good for the environment and the economy

  • Piles of woodchip fuel at the ReEnergy biomass power plant at Fort Drum, N.Y., are shown in this November 2014 file photo. The ReEnergy plant supplies 100 percent of Fort Drum’’s electricity. AP file

For the Monitor
Published: 9/28/2017 12:20:02 AM

David Brooks’s column headlined “My ‘burn wood for power’ argument goes up in flames” (Monitor front page, Sept. 26) offers an incomplete picture of how timber markets (in this case biomass) benefit New Hampshire’s forests and our environment.

If you love our forests, if you want less development crowding out our beautiful hardwoods and softwoods, if you prefer healthier and more habitat for New Hampshire’s wildlife, then biomass energy and the logging and sawmill industries that support biomass have earned your, and Brooks’s, applause.

While we continue to grow more trees than we cut (this has been true for many years), approximately two-thirds of the wood our forests produce is classified as low-grade. That is, it isn’t good enough to be sawn into lumber or used for veneer or made into wood flooring. The best use of it is to convert it into paper or energy, either as firewood or as woodchips for fuel for biomass energy plants.

One might wonder: Why cut low-grade trees at all? Don’t the trees have a use or value just as trees? These are good questions. Here’s the answer: Because without a market for low-grade wood, timberland owners – whether they’re individuals, institutions such as universities, corporate investors or governmental agencies such as municipal-owned forests – can’t economically justify owning timberland for long-term sustainable forestry.

The basic fact is, without a market for low-grade wood, including the market for woodchips that biomass energy plants provide, loggers and land managers can’t afford to weed and thin timberland to produce lumber-quality timber.

As a result, New Hampshire’s sawmills and logging industry will take a hit. As economic studies by Plymouth State University have found, logging is directly and indirectly responsible for $168 million in economic activity and 1,921 jobs, and sawmills are directly and indirectly responsible for $447 million in economic activity and 2,593 jobs. These losses will be felt by the entire state economy.

Brooks states: “If biomass power and heat occurred only by burning wood that is unused in lumber or land-clearing operations – tops and limbs – it would be all right. But the mechanics of wood harvesting mean this often isn’t the case, and the industry leads to harvesting that wouldn’t happen otherwise.” This is not true. The “mechanics” of wood harvesting that Brooks references are these: Timberland is logged for marketable sawlogs to turn into lumber and other wood products; woodchips, pulpwood and firewood from tops and limbs are byproducts.

No logging company logs only to produce woodchips, pulpwood or firewood, and the reason is simple: such a logging company would be out of business in no time.

Brooks connects the UNH commentary with a study by Harvard Forest “that showed New England is starting to use up its woodlands again after decades of forest regeneration.” This is a false connection. In fact, the opposite is true. New England is not losing woodlands for woodchip production. New England is losing woodlands to permanent development (such as house lots and strip malls). Permanent development occurs when the value of the land for non-forest uses exceeds its value for growing trees.

So when you lose markets for trees (including low-grade timber markets), the economic incentive to permanently develop the land to a non-forest use grows.

Study after study has shown that managing timberland by sustainably logging it not only improves the health of the forest and habitat for animals, especially including New Hampshire’s beloved moose (which greatly prefer fresh undergrowth to munch on), it also generates local economic activity and jobs.

Brooks concludes his column by writing, “Logging is cool and an important part of what makes northern New England what it is, so I want the power market to be there to support loggers.” I do too, and you can rest easy that in the full context of sustainable forest management and enabling landowners to economically justify keeping forests as forests, biomass is indeed and in fact environmentally positive.

(Jasen Stock is executive director of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association.)

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