Large-scale bioenergy from additional harvest of forest biomass is neither sustainable nor greenhouse gas neutral
I’ve been down and out with the crud this week, so some items I’ve been meaning to post have been stacking up. Researchers from Europe and the United States have ‘collaborated’ on a new study titled, “Large-scale bioenergy from additional harvest of forest biomass is neither sustainable nor greenhouse gas neutral.” Below is the abstract and a snipped portion from the study.
Owing to the peculiarities of forest net primary production humans would appropriate ca. 60% of the global increment of woody biomass if forest biomass were to produce 20% of current global primary energy supply. We argue that such an increase in biomass harvest would result in younger forests, lower biomass pools, depleted soil nutrient stocks and a loss of other ecosystem functions. The proposed strategy is likely to miss its main objective, i.e. to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, because it would result in a reduction of biomass pools that may take decades to centuries to be paid back by fossil fuel substitution, if paid back at all. Eventually, depleted soil fertility will make the production unsustainable and require fertilization, which in turn increases GHG emissions due to N2O emissions. Hence, large-scale production of bioenergy from forest biomass is neither sustainable nor GHG neutral.
Homogeneous young stands with a low biomass resulting from bioenergy harvest are less likely to serve as habitat for species that depend on structural complexity. It is possible that succession following disturbance can lead to young stands that have functional complexity analogous to that of old forests; however, this successional pathway would likely occur only under natural succession. A lower structural complexity, and removal of understory species, is expected to result in a loss of forest biodiversity and function. It would reverse the trend towards higher biomass of dead wood (i.e. the Northwest Forest Plan in the United States) to maintain the diversity of xylobiontic species.
Cumulative impacts of bioenergy-related management activities that modify vegetation, soil and hydro- logic conditions are likely to influence erosion rates and flooding and lead to increased annual runoff and fish habitat degradation of streams. Young uniform stands with low compared to high standing biomass have less aesthetic value for recreation and are less efficient in avalanche control and slope stabilization in mountains owing to larger and more frequent cutting. A potential advantage is that younger forests with shorter rotations offer opportunities for assisted migration, although there is great uncertainty in winners and losers (species, provenances, genotypes) in a future climate. Plantations, however, largely contribute to pathogen spread, such as rust disease.
Forests offer several important ecosystem services in addition to biomass and some would be jeopardized by the bioenergy-associated transition from high to low standing biomass. Agriculture provides a visible example for abandoning most ecosystem services except biomass production; communities in intensive agricultural regions often rely on (nearby) forested water sheds for drinking water, recreation and offsetting GHG emissions from intensive agriculture.
The Forest Service’s Institute of Forest Genetics, in Placerville, California, has announced an important development to provide future nest trees, for imperiled birds on the Endangered Species List. Dr. Marie Shelley says that a twelve year effort has produced sapling trees, which exhibit the branching characteristics needed by birds, for nest trees which protect their young from predators like the Great Grey Owl. After eight years of finding seed trees, and cone collecting, the Forest Service’s Placerville Nursery is now producing saplings that will grow into the limby, short trees that nesting birds prefer. The efforts have been met with opposition from anti-GMO groups, claiming that such “experiments” could lead to “Frankenstein Forests”, breeding with the native species and putting forests at unacceptable risk. Dr. Shelley says that those genetics already naturally exist, and there is simply no danger to current gene pools.
The Forest Service has provided this picture of their first “Mother Tree”, found on the Black Hills National Forest, showing the increased branch growth that foresters have always called “Wolfy Trees”. Often, in the past, these trees were cut down and left in the forests, without any commercial value. The revolution in forest science during the 90′s has led to using such trees as “Wildlife Trees”, considered a much better use of these kinds of trees. Researchers say that these “Wolfy Trees” have accelerated growth rates, if they have open sun. The Black Hills National Forest has implemented the pilot program and is now interplanting their site-specific special trees in areas impacted by bark beetles and wildfires.
(Below is a press release from the researchers. A copy of the study is available here. – mk)
New research shows that western dry forests were not uniform, open forests, as commonly thought, before widespread logging and grazing, but included both dense and open forests, as well as large high-intensity fires previously considered rare in these forests. The study used detailed analysis of records from land surveys, conducted in the late-1800s, to reconstruct forest structure over very large dry-forest landscapes, often dominated by ponderosa pine forests. The area analyzed included about 4.1 million acres on the Mogollon Plateau and Black Mesa in northern Arizona, in the Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon, and in the Colorado Front Range.
The reconstructions, which are based on about 13,000 first-hand descriptions of forests from early land surveyors along section-lines, supplemented by data for about 28,000 trees, do not support the common idea that dry forests historically consisted of uniform park-like stands of large, old trees. Previous studies that found this were hampered by the limitations inherent in tree-ring reconstructions from small, isolated field plots that may be unrepresentative of larger landscapes.
“The land surveys provide us with an unprecedented spatially extensive and detailed view of these dry-forest landscapes before widespread alteration” said Dr. William Baker, a co-author of the study and a professor in the Program in Ecology at the University of Wyoming. “And, what we see from this is that these forests were highly variable, with dense areas, open areas, recently burned areas, young forests, and areas of old-growth forests, often in a complex mosaic.”
The study also does not support the idea that frequent low-intensity fires historically prevented high-intensity fires in dry forests.
“Moderate- and high-severity fires were much more common in ponderosa pine and other dry forests than previously believed ” said Mark Williams, senior author of the study and recent PhD graduate of the University of Wyoming’s Program in Ecology.
“While higher-severity fires have been documented in at least parts of the Front Range of Colorado, they were not believed to play a major role in the historical dynamics of southwestern dry forests .”
Some large modern wildfires, such as Arizona’s Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002 and the Wallow fire of 2011 that have been commonly perceived as unnatural or catastrophic fires actually were similar to fires that occurred historically in these dry forests.
The findings suggest that national programs that seek to uniformly reduce the density of these forests and lower the intensity of fires will not restore these forests, but instead alter them further, with negative consequences for wildlife. Special-concern species whose habitat includes dense forest patches, such as spotted owls, or whose habitat includes recently burned forests, such as black-backed woodpeckers, are likely to be adversely affected by current fuel-reduction programs.
The findings of the study suggest that if the goal is to perpetuate native fish and wildlife in western dry forests, it is appropriate to restore and manage for variability in forest density and fire intensity, including areas of dense forests and high-intensity fire.
• Only 23-40% of the study areas fit the common idea that dry forests were open, park-like and composed of large trees.
• Frequent low-intensity fires did not prevent high-intensity fires, as 38-97% of the study landscapes had evidence of intense fires that killed trees over large areas of dry forests.
• The rate of higher-severity fires in dry forests over the past few decades is lower than that which occurred historically, regardless of fire suppression impacts.
The study was published online last week in the international scientific journal, Global Ecology and Biogeography. The published article can be accessed online here. The title is: Spatially extensive reconstructions show variable-severity fire and heterogeneous structure in historical western United States dry forests.
The authors are Dr. Mark A. Williams and Dr. William L. Baker, who are scientists in the Program in Ecology and Department of Geography at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Mark A. Williams is a 2010 PhD graduate, and Dr. William L. Baker is a professor, both in the Program in Ecology and Department of Geography. In Dr. Williams’s PhD, he developed and applied new scientific methods for reconstructing historical structure and fire across large land areas in dry western forests. Dr. Baker teaches and researches fire ecology and landscape ecology at the University of Wyoming and is author of a 2009 book on “Fire Ecology in Rocky Mountain Landscapes.”
Dr. Mark A. Williams, Program in Ecology and Department of Geography, Dept. 3371, 1000 E. University Ave., University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY 82071. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. William L. Baker, Program in Ecology and Department of Geography, Dept. 3371, 1000 E. University Ave., University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY 82071. Phone: 307-766- 2925, Email: BAKERWL@UWYO.EDU.
I thought some of our readers might be interested in a recent paper by Headwaters Economics examining ideas for reforming the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS) and Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT).
Here is the PDF Reform_County_Payments_WhitePaper_LowRes
This outfit does some really neat work and this paper is no exception. Both programs are about to expire and the paper explores eight options in how to possibly move forward. Some of the most interesting ideas are to change the distribution formula to give proportionately higher payments to counties based on various things, such as:
A) giving preferential assistance to counties with the greatest need
B) Linking payments to a County’s willingness to control federal costs by reducing development in wildfire-prone areas
C) Linking payments to the value of ecosystem services provided by federal public lands
D) Distibute higher payments to counties with protected public lands
Also included in the paper is an interactive mapping tool with which you can mess around and see how the various options would impact a particular county, and in some cases a Congressional District.
Next week the Forest Service plans to explode some trees. With dynamite. In a wilderness. To protect hikers.
The 150 large, dead or dying hemlocks lie along the Joyce Kilmer trail that snakes through the 17,394-acre Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness in North Carolina. The trees are victims of the hemlock woolly adelgid, a non-native insect. The Forest Service proposes to blast the tops out of the trees, lessening their chance of falling on someone, while preserving the appearance that the trees were snapped by wind and not cut by saw.
The Wilderness Act requires the Forest Service to preserve wilderness character. The Act also bans certain uses (e.g., roads, commercial enterprises, motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, landing of aircraft, mechanical transport, and structures) “except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area).”
Removing trees does not fall within any of the prohibitions for which the “emergencies involving health and safety” apply. But, even if the safety allowance was relevant, i.e., tree detonation is one of the prohibited uses that has an emergency safety allowance, the case law would not support the agency’s view that this is the kind of emergency Congress had in mind. In a safety case involving structures (and thus relevant to the emergency safety allowance), the court quoted from the National Park Service’s environmental assessment:
The Wilderness Act and current NPS Management Policies encourage wilderness users to prepare for, and encounter the wilderness on its own terms, striving to provide “primitive and unconfined” recreation opportunities, complete with the risks that arise from wildlife, weather conditions, etc. NPS wilderness management policies do not support the provision of facilities in wilderness specifically to eliminate these risks.
Olympic Park Assocs. v. Mainella, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44230 (W.D. Wash. July 29, 2005).
Tree falling is precisely the kind of danger that inheres in primitive recreation; it is a risk that arises from an act of Nature.
What makes the Forest Service decision to blow up these trees particularly ironic is that the agency took precisely the opposite position in litigation brought by hikers injured in this same wilderness when a “huge rotten tree” fell on them. In that case, the Forest Service argued that “the wilderness objectives of ‘solitude, physical and mental challenge, spirit of adventure and self-reliance,’ mean ‘that any trees — including rotten ones — should not be tampered with whatsoever.’” Wright v. United States, 868 F. Supp. 930, 931 (E.D. Tenn. 1994). The plaintiffs’ tort case for damages was dismissed on other grounds.
Why has the Forest Service reversed course 180 degrees to conclude that dead trees must now be dynamited to make the wilderness safe for hikers?
I guess the “Empty Quarter” (see Colors of Elk Country post) will be empty of biofuel research.
Cathie Wotecki is the Undersecretary for the Research Education and Economics area at USDA.
Here’s the link to the story.
The USDA says five regional biofuels research centers would be created. The centers, a collaboration between the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the U.S. Forest Service (FS), would be established at:
* Northeast Center — Madison, Wis., led by the Forest Service
* Central East Center — UNL, led by ARS
* Southeast Center – Boonesville, Ark., and Tifton, Ga., (both ARS) and in Auburn, Ala. (FS)
* Western Center — Maricopa, Ariz.
* Northwestern Center — Pullman, Wash., (ARS) and Corvallis, Ore. (FS)
Funds are also to be made available to assist in the construction of new biorefineries, starting in 2011. One refinery would be built in each of the regions serviced by the new biomass research centers, but no locations were announced.
OK, I guess Pullman counts as Elk Country, but associated with Oregon State and called “Northwest” not so sure that the east side will get attention… also Maricopa may not quite be Elk Country.
The photo is of Maricopa, Arizona. Disclaimer: I once worked in the REE mission area for an agency then known as CSREES and now known as NIFA.