Amid beetle plague, turning trees to wood chips could be western forests’ salvation

Posted: November 9, 2011

Source: Salt Lake Tribune
Photo compliments of: Big Sky Country Photos

Mountain Pine beetle plagued forestPutting wood chips to work could be the West’s best hope at saving itsforests.

Right now, there are too few profits to persuade the too few loggers to prune trees from tens of millions of sickly acres, government foresters believe. But turning overabundant trees into heat and electricity would create an economic incentive for them to thin the forests.

The alternative is to watch the trees compete themselves to death, stressing under warming temperatures and lengthening growing seasons until beetles or fires wipe mountains clean. More than 40 million acres of the West’s forests have succumbed to beetles since 1997, and foresters who believe thinning is an answer cannot keep up.

Fence posts, cordwood and garden mulch are all bit players, helpful but not up to recycling the Intermountain West.

“If there’s a market for energy, great,” said Lance Lindbloom, a contractor hired by the government to clear a fire-safe zone around Interstate 15 south of Beaver and one who realizes the feds cannot afford his kind of work across the landscape. “Just make a market to cut the costs.”

That’s what the government is trying to do here — by baby steps through the junipers and pinyon pines that all-out fire suppression in the past allowed to thicken. It takes the government about $500 to thin an acre in these rolling olive-and-gold foothills.

Lindbloom’s ranch-service company is clearing most of the junipers along the freeway, taking an arid forest with about 300 trees per acre down to 45 or 50. Some of the product is shipped off for biomass energy research.

The concept was be the subject of a mid-October forestry conference at Utah State University titled “Restoring the West: Sustaining Forests, Woodlands and Communities through Biomass Use.” Academic and business experts discussed the possibilities, while U.S. Energy Department scientists reviewed biofuel advances.

Skeptics fear the movement could provide environmental cover for those who are merely interested in harvesting money from public lands. Some believe roadless areas that provide buffer zones for wildlife could come under threat.

“What I really hate to see is people finding excuses to exploit nature,” said Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy. “I’m very suspicious of biomass projects for that reason.”

He cites a 2010 report by the Oregon-based National Center for Conservation Science & Policy as reason to doubt stepped-up logging is needed. Colorado State University conservation biologists and associated researchers who worked on the report, “Insects and Roadless Forests,” determined that logging was unlikely to challenge an infestation that’s largely driven by climate change.

They also concluded that, because forests have recovered after previous large outbreaks, it would be best to leave roadless areas alone.

“The forests that are now losing many trees to insect attack will not look the same in our lifetimes,” they wrote, “but healthy trees and familiar forest structures will eventually return in most locations.”

Many in government are sold on the idea, though, and some are using Beaver as a test case.

After the Bureau of Land Management awarded the thinning contract, the Forest Service came looking for a place to spend an energy-research grant. It made sense to try here, BLM forester Doug Page said, because the agency already had cleared the environmental hurdles to take thousands of trees.

Heavy-equipment maker Fecon decided to demonstrate how its chippers could help turn wood into energy.

In July, Fecon’s machine, a garbage-truck-size vehicle with robotic crane and pincers, lifted saw-felled 15-foot junipers one at a time, rotating them in midair and feeding them, stump first, into a toothed gearbox that pulled them though a chipper. In seconds, each tree disappeared and was blown out a chute into a waiting cargo container.

Now, about 40 tons of juniper and pinyon chips are bound for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory for fuel experiments meant to enable industrial thinning.

“I see this as the only way we can make restoration and regular thinning happen,” said University of Montana ecology professor Steven Running.

It results in a net reduction in carbon emissions, too, if this biomass replaces fossil fuels. Wood carbon naturally is on a fast track to the atmosphere — compared with coal or oil left in the earth — because it will decay if not burned.

Running’s employer is seeking an air-quality permit to crank up a gasifier, which transforms chips into fuel that would replace natural gas in heating the Missoula campus. Environmental groups have appealed a decision by the local health department to grant the permit, but backers see it as green energy and a safety measure.

“We sit surrounded by forests in a way Salt Lake doesn’t,” Running said. “We’ve had holocaust-level fires where people got burned up.”

Nearby, Darby, Mont., is burning wood chips for school heat, using trees that in another era would have gone to a sawmill or a Missoula-area paperboard mill. Ely, Nev., also has a school participating in “Fuels for Schools,” a project land managers hope will catch on in the rural West.

Other opportunities exist for markets that require a component of renewable energy. The Intermountain Power Project plant at Delta has studied adding biomass to its coal feedstock because it supplies power to California, a state that mandates green energy.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s administration has adopted an energy plan that looks to a future of renewables, including biomass. It touts university research collaboration but doesn’t deal tax breaks to companies.

“There’s not really any incentives — government incentives — to do it in Utah,” Page said.

But there is a tremendous supply. The Beehive State boasts 10 million acres of pinyon-juniper forests.