National Forest Biomass Off-Limits for RFS

In national forests from Arizona to Montana, thousands of slash piles left by the timber industry could be used to produce cellulosic ethanol. Before that can happen, the language in the Energy Independence & Security Act must be changed.
By Hope Deutscher | June 02, 2008
From renewable energy companies to private organizations, many entities see the potential for energy derived from biomass sitting in piles in the United States' 155 national forests.

The Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007, which was signed into law in December, includes a historic 36 billion-gallon renewable fuels standard (RFS), a portion of which will be made from biomass. A last-minute change in the legislation's definition of renewable biomass, however, prevents almost all federal land biomass—such as trees, wood, brush, thinnings, chips and slash—from counting toward the mandate if it is used to manufacture biofuels. "At times we get calls for prospective biomass consumers and cellulosic ethanol investors who want to know how much wood the Black Hills can provide," says Blaine Cook, a forest silviculturist with the Black Hills National Forest, who is also the biomass coordinator for the forest.

Currently there are 3,126 slash piles in the Black Hills National Forest from saw timber harvest and thinning, which Cook says is equivalent to 239,000 green tons. And there are slash piles totaling more than a million tons (air dry) that are 1 to 4 years of age in the forest.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., notes that biomass was eligible to be counted toward the 2005 RFS, but when the 2007 energy package was crafted behind closed doors, it changed the way that waste material from national forests could be used. "America's national forests provide one of our greatest renewable resources," Thune says. "To exclude slash piles and other wastes from within our national forests to be counted towards the renewable fuels standard simply makes no sense. It is unfortunate that the harmful definition of renewable biomass was inserted by the House Democratic leadership at the last minute, and it is critical that Congress fix this definition before the new RFS rules take effect on Jan. 1, 2009."

The U.S. Forest Service, timber and alternative energy groups have met with South Dakota's congressional delegation to discuss the exclusion of this biomass from the federal Energy Bill. Thune and U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., have since introduced separate bills to change the definition of renewable biomass, as it was written in earlier versions of the bill. The legislation also promotes the development and use of cellulosic ethanol derived from woody biomass on federal lands. The Black Hills National Forest, a dense ponderosa pine forest covers an area 125 miles long and 65 miles wide in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. "This provision not only discourages the use of such biomass, but in doing so could result in a decrease in responsible forest management by denying land managers an important outlet for the excessive biomass loads that often accumulate on public lands," Herseth Sandlin says. "Amending the definition of renewable biomass in the Energy Bill will greatly improve our ability to manufacture renewable energy from our forestlands, both public and private, all over the country. This would bring tremendous benefits, not only to our environment, to forest health, and to our national security, but it will also provide an economically viable outlet for forest byproducts that could revitalize the local economies of hundreds of small forest communities across the country, including those in the Black Hills."

Herseth Sandlin's bill significantly broadens the definition of cellulosic ethanol within the RFS to include more biomass gathered from federal land and would allow RFS credit for broad categories of biomass from nonfederal and tribal lands including agricultural commodities, plants and trees, algae, crop residue, waste material (including wood waste and wood residues), animal waste and byproducts (including fats, oils, greases and manure), construction waste, and food and yard waste. The Renewable Biofuels Facilitation Act was cosponsored by a geographically diverse and bipartisan group, including representatives Greg Walden, R-Ore., Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., Bart Stupak, D-Mich., Mike Ross, D-Ark., Chip Pickering, R-Miss., Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., Jo Bonner, R-Ala., and John Peterson, R-Pa. Under the proposed legislation, biomass projects conducted on federal lands would still have to comply with federal and state law, as well as applicable land management plans. On Feb. 7, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the RFS.

The National Forest System and Forest Service, an agency of the USDA, manages 155 national forests and 222 research and experimental forests, as well as 20 national grasslands and other special areas, covering more than 192 million acres of public land. The national forests, which were first called forest reserves, began with the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. The act allowed presidents to establish forest reserves from timber-covered public domain land. Throughout the years, leaders and visionaries have worked with scientific and conservation organizations, and forest professionals to retain millions of acres of federally designated forest land for future generations.

Black Hills National Forest officials say their goal is to have a healthy forest that is green, diverse and productive, and provides homes for wildlife and fish. The forest is actively thinned to fend off mountain pine beetles and reduce the risk of crown fires. The logging and timber industry also helps the forest service thin the forest. "We're thinning and logging in areas of high risk from insects and fire so the bugs can't get established and fires can burn at low intensity," says Dave Thom, Black Hills national resources staff officer.

Trees that are thinned and logged, and treated with prescribed burns don't have to compete with so many other trees for water and nutrients. They grow faster, are healthier and result in stronger more resilient forests, Thom says.

Energy Source
KL Process Design Group, a biofuels design-build company based in Rapid City, S.D., recently started a cellulosic ethanol facility in Upton, Wyo. The company is utilizing wood chips from private landowners in the Black Hills. "The Black Hills National Forest has several pockets of private landowners within in it so we will be utilizing those particular pockets of wooded area for now. And, of course, our hope is that on the back end the Energy Bill will be changed and open that up." A juvenile corrections facility south of Custer, S.D., which just put in a biomass furnace, and a Rapid City cabinet maker are also using wood waste from the forest. All three sources just want a couple trucks a week, Cook says. "The remaining piles out there reach a point of starting to decay and once the wood fiber starts to go, after about a year and a half, they are burned," he says.

Tom Martin, media relations manager for KL Process, says the company is working with the state's congressional leaders to change federal policy. "We're trying to work hard with our congressional leaders in South Dakota to perhaps get some concessions on that or even turn it around," Martin says. "We don't think from a usable standpoint that it makes a lot of sense, it kind of takes the teeth out of the cellulosic part of the Energy Bill, and so we're working hard to try and get that turned around a bit." At public meetings, KL Process President Dave Litzen has said the biomass in the Black Hills National Forest slash piles could produce 30 million gallons of ethanol.

Differing Opinions
Not everyone supports the idea of taking waste wood from a national forest and using it for energy. WildEarth Guardians, a conservation group based in the southwestern United States supports climate and energy change through energy conservation and appropriate sustainable energy, but it doesn't support rewriting the renewable energy legislation to include biomass from federal forest lands. "The bottom line is that we don't believe our federal forests have a role in the new energy economy," says Bryan Bird, WildEarth Guardians' Wild Places program director. "As much as we are striving for new clean energy sources—and biofuels and biomass may have a role in that—we don't think the federal forest lands are a place for that."

WildEarth Guardians was formed earlier this year when two regional conservation groups in the southwestern United States, Forest Guardians and Sinapu, merged to create one organization dedicated to protecting and restoring wild places, wildlife and wild rivers from the Great Plains and desert Southwest across the Rockies and through the Intermountain West.

Bird, who has more than a decade of experience in grassroots efforts working on national forest policy and management, oversees WildEarth Guardians' hands-on ecosystem restoration project and is responsible for monitoring and challenging proposed activities on public lands such as off-road vehicles, logging and road building that threaten areas within the southern Rockies, the Gila Bioregion, and the Sagebrush Sea.

For several decades there was a balanced control of federal forest policy, with the logging industry setting the agenda and policy of federal national forests and, to some degree, the Bureau of Land Management, Bird says, adding that grassroots activists like himself want to maintain the management of the national forests as was originally intended. "For many years the management of these national forests was driven by timber economics and people," he says. "Public land activists worked hard to shift that balance back towards, not only multiple use, but what we consider to be the real value of our national forest systems which is providing air, water, wildlife and recreational opportunities. Those values far outweigh in our mind—in my mind—any that would come from producing a biofuel or electricity from biomass."

Bird says it's that background that lays the foundation for his belief that public forests are not the appropriate place to source plant matter for biofuels.

"As federal forest advocates, we are concerned that if we start to look to our federal public lands as a first for plant matter for biofuels we'll be back at square one where economics drive the management and policy of our federal forests. And unless there are incredibly strong safeguards in place to avoid that, we're going to have to continue to not support sourcing from federal forests."

It's a big assumption that only waste wood from the national forests would be used for renewable energy, Bird says. "Coming from a purely scientific, ecological perspective, a forest wastes nothing," he says. "Forests have existed for millenniums without human intervention … insect infestations, natural fires these are all critical regulating processes in natural forests. We tend, as humans, to look at fire and insects as somehow a blight or unnatural. … and yes, ascetically they can be. But from an ecological perspective if you are looking at these forests for their natural value and what they do from an ecological services perspective, those fires and insects serve a purpose. They are removing and refreshing these forests. It's a false assumption to say that there is waste that comes from a natural forest."

Bird says he is supportive of cogeneration—for example, colocating a biofuels facility with a mill that has waste matter that would otherwise go to a landfill or incinerator. But he would like to see the national forests off limits.

"We may begin, what I consider, mining our forests for energy, mining our public lands for energy," Bird says. "Whether it's liquid fuel or electricity what we worry about ultimately is that if you open the door a crack to this concept of we can meet some of our energy needs from public forests, that door will get kicked open very quickly—we won't be able to control the tide and we'll be back to square one where these lands are being damaged and destroyed for our energy needs."

Bird, who is a Sierra Club member and chairs the national forest committee, says a policy has been developed by the committee which is in line with the renewable Energy Bill, as it is currently written. However, representatives from the South Dakota Chapter of the Sierra Club have said their local chapter doesn't oppose using wood waste from the national forests for energy. But they also don't want the Black Hills National Forest to be used a as a fuel farm, and they insist that any biomass gathered for alternative fuels should be done within the existing forest management plan.

Burning Versus Benefitting
Headquartered in Rapid City, the Black Hills Forest Resource Association is a nonprofit, membership-supported organization devoted to improving forest management, decision-making and policies on the Black Hills National Forest. BHFRA members support protecting the Black Hills' forest environment while maintaining its relationship with dependent communities and economies. BHFRA Director Tom Troxel says the association supports Herseth-Sandlin's bill. "When the loggers are logging, they bring the trees into the landing where the tops and limbs are cut off," he says. "And so we have these great big piles at every landing. For the most part they are just burned and there's nobody that wants them left in the woods. The wildlife biologists don't want those piles left at the landings. If those [slash piles] were all left in the woods, it would be a fire hazard and really, anything that we can do now that would encourage any sort of utilization of that is common sense. If we can utilize it rather than burn it, then I think it benefits all around."

As more companies around the country research the use of wood waste as an economical alternative fuel source, Troxel says he would like to see federal policy support for that. "I'd like to see federal energy policy such that it would encourage use of these piles," he says. "It's an economic benefit and it fits into the whole energy independence a lot of folks are thinking about for the United States. If there's a way that we can produce this energy here at home with our own resources, that's a plus."

Troxel says for the foreseeable future there is energy potential from the biomass supply in the Black Hills National Forest. "I think there's going to be an ongoing and continuous need for forest management in the Black Hills," he says. "What I foresee for management strategies and logging systems is that there will be slash piles for a long time into the future that will be available for some sort of utilization."

Hope Deutscher is the Ethanol Producer Magazine online editor. Reach her at hdeutscher@bbibiofuels.com or (701) 373-0636.