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Biomass is a big part of the timber industry's future, but what most people talk about when it comes to turning woody biomass into energy is a process called cogeneration. This is pretty straightforward: wood waste or wood pellets are burned in a plant to create electricity.
Now another type of biomass process is getting some attention: pyrolysis. The woody biomass is still burned, but it's burned in a low-oxygen kiln to produce not electricity but liquid (bio-oil), charcoal (biochar) and gas (syngas). The bio-oil and the biochar, as of now, have the most lucrative potential.
Just last week, the Washington Department of Natural Resources hosted a demonstration near Cle Elum highlighting the power of pyrolysis. A Salt Lake City company, Amaron Energy, brought up its mobile "fast pyrolysis" reactor, built in a 45-foot-long freight container.
The bio-oil produced in pyrolysis is attracting special attention. The oil has the potential to be converted into car fuel, plastic, asphalt or heat for homes, and pyrolysis plants are being built or planned in several cities in Europe. Earlier this month ExxonMobil announced it's investing $1 million to create an advanced biofuels research program at Iowa State University, a program that will initially focus entirely on fast pyrolysis.
What's unique about the fast pyrolysis machine on display in Cle Elum is it's mobile, which means it could be transported deep into timber areas. With wood waste so close and plentiful, the fast pyrolysis process suddenly gets a lot more economical.
There may not be a more energetic time for the timber industry around the country than National Forest Products Week. The annual event, always the third week of October, is a tribute to the country's forest products industry and the 900,000 American workers who make the industry such a critical piece of the U.S. economy.
This years's event, Oct. 19-25, includes timber tours, industry fairs, student training sessions, lectures and charity home builds, from Kentucky and Florida to Montana, Idaho and Oregon.
Jim Hannan, CEO and President of Georgia-Pacific, a pulp and paper company based in Atlanta, put it well this week:
It's National Forest Products Week, a nationally designated time to recognize the contributions of forest products manufacturers to the lives of all American citizens. In my opinion, the U.S. forest products industry is one of our country’s greatest success stories.
The annual celebration was established by Congress in 1960 and leads to proclamations like this one from President Obama this year:
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim October 19 through October 25, 2014, as National Forest Products Week. I call on the people of the United States to join me in recognizing the dedicated individuals who are responsible for the stewardship of our forests and for the preservation, management, and use of these precious natural resources for the benefit of the American people.
The lack of federal forest management is hurting rural communities across the West, and Skamania County, Wash., is among the worst hit in the country.
Time after time, local leaders call on the U.S. Forest Service to start finally managing the surrounding Gifford Pinchot National Forest and make it the economic engine it's set in law to be. Now, after years of neglect, the county last week declared a state of emergency.
The declaration from the Skamania County Board of Commissioners was necessary because of "unhealthy forest conditions, yearly threat of catastrophic fires, and, minimal county government, schools and emergency services."
Michael Green is a rock star of wood architecture. The Vancouver, B.C., architect is a pioneer in expanding the use of wood in large, modern buildings from the European cities where the practice started to the cities of North America.
He designed the largest wood building in Canada, is working on several other large wood buildings (including at least one in the U.S.) and he literally wrote the book on large wood buildings (the 200-page "Case for Tall Wood Buildings," which is available for free online).
It's no wonder that we've mentioned Green several times (here, here and here) on this blog. And it's with great pleasure that we now announce Green is featured in a series of videos on The Most Natural Resource. The site, which explores the benefits of wood, is operated by the Washington Forest Protection Association, the Washington Contract Loggers Association, the Family Forest Foundation and the Washington Farm Forestry Association.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the landmark Forests & Fish Law, an innovative set of environmental protections that lays out how forestry is practiced in Washington. Since the law was passed, large forest landowners have improved tens of thousands of miles of forest roads, reopened nearly 3,300 miles of fish habitat and removed or replaced more than 5,100 stream blockages.
Mark Doumit, the Executive Director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, went on Comcast Newsmakers this week to talk about how the groundbreaking law has made the state a better place to live. His four-minute interview will air on CNN Headline News intermittently over the next few weeks, and it's also online.
In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency said it was putting off a decision on potential greenhouse-gas restrictions on biomass for three years. The delay was considered a big victory for biomass proponents and a loss for environmental groups.
Since then, biomass projects have continued to be built. The largest biomass plant in North America, using wood pellets, just opened in Ontario, Canada.
"A new era has dawned in Ontario; one where the air will be cleaner and the multiple costs of coal-fired generation have become a distant memory,” said Canada’s Minister of Energy Bob Chiarelli.
Biomass Magazine says demand for wood pellets is strong in European countries looking to move away from fossil fuel energy, and a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency says 20 percent of all global electricity could come from biomass - whether it be wood or other materials - by 2030.
Meanwhile, an $85 million biomass plant in Port Angeles, Wash., is set to become fully operational later this year. The Japan-owned Nippon Paper Industries cogeneration plant was dedicated last fall with 20 megawatts of capacity but never hit full production because of technical problems inside the boiler. Those problems have now been fixed.
Six months after the Oso landslide, our state and community are still in the process of learning and healing. There are multiple groups taking a deeper look at the slide, everything from its causes and its impact to the emergency response and how development is approved near steep slopes. A 12-member commission of experts enlisted by Gov. Jay Inslee and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick held its first meeting last month, and a team of geologists released a report about the causes of the landslide in July.
The job of Inslee and Lovick's commission is to glean lessons from the disaster, but with the tragedy still so close and so powerful, it's impossible for commissioners to do their job without strong emotion.
The commission toured the landslide site in August and later that day, held its first meeting in Everett.
Since 1975, TimberWest Magazine has been covering the West Coast timber industry one company at a time. It's easy sometimes to focus on the larger issues concerning the forestry industry, but day-to-day, it's forestry companies that are the lifeblood of the business.
In recent months, TimberWest has profiled several Washington companies: Barnes and Sons Logging in Lewis County, Swanson Bark and Wood Products in Longview, Precision Forestry in Arlington-Darrington and Cascade H & A in Snohomish County.
Reading their stories, it's clear that the industry is about hard work, commitment, camaraderie, innovation and teamwork with other forestry companies.
In May 2013, it seemed like Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was the great hope for federal timber reform. He had just taken over as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, putting him in prime position to finally get the Northwest timber harvest kickstarted after decades of meager activity.
Wyden's proposal, finally announced in November 2013, only covered Oregon timber counties in the former Oregon & California (O&C) Railroad Co. lands. Timber owners in Washington and other timber states would have to wait.
Meanwhile, Oregon timber companies and rural counties actually preferred another bill that would have increased the Oregon harvest. That bill, from Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore, was folded into a plan from Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., that would increase the timber harvest around the country. Hastings' bill was actually passed by the House but at last check, it's stalled in the Senate.
That left Wyden's proposal, coupled with Wyden's prime leadership position, as a possible way forward. Timber companies and rural counties opposed his bill, but it seemed like it could be a starting-off point for negotiations, with perhaps some elements of DeFazio or Hastings' bills added on to reach a compromise that both timber leaders and environmental groups could at least stomach, if not support.
Now that kind of compromise feels more distant.
Washington's forests are in poor health, with trees diseased by pine beetles, spruce budworms and root rot. The situation got so bad that in 2012, State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark declared a forest health-hazard warning for parts of Eastern Washington, a warning that is still in effect two years later.
It's no coincidence then that Washington is enduring one of its worst wildfire seasons ever, including the Carlton Complex fire, the largest single wildfire in state history. Diseased trees are kindling for forest fires.
The rampant fires have led the Seattle Times, the Olympian and other community leaders to demand more funding for what's been the solution all along: active forest management.
The anger and frustration over the lack of federal forest management recently boiled over in Skamania County, Wash.
It's no wonder. As we noted in a post last year, 80 percent of Skamania County is taken up by the Gifford Pinchot National Forest; another 8 percent is owned by the state, and another 10 percent of the county is private timberland, which generates significant tax reveue only when it's harvested. That means only 2 percent of the county is private, regularly taxed property.
Skamania County is heavily dependent on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest being managed properly, and since the advent of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, the forest isn't even being harvested at the levels laid out in that plan, let alone levels that would allow the county's residents to be able to live and work in their communities.
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, recently convened a roundtable of about 35 federal, state and local leaders, who met in Skamania County to discuss potential solutions and also tour the Silver Creek thinning project in the Gifford Pinchot forest.
If recent news coverage and town hall meetings are any indication, anger is growing in rural communities over the lack of timber activity in Northwest federal forests.
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., has actually done more than most federal lawmakers to try to reform federal forest management, but that didn't stop him from getting an earful from constituents at a town hall last week in Eastern Oregon. This was in a rural area (Grant County) that had not just one but two wildfires burning while the meeting took place.
For some of the town hall meeting, Walden was joined by leaders from the U.S. Forest Service.
If you're looking for signs that the future of the forestry industry is in good hands, look no further than Billy Zimmerman.
The 25-year-old from Rainier, Ore., just across the Columbia River from Washington, recently started his own logging company, according to a recent story in the Longview Daily News. It's no secret that the forestry industry is aging, and experts say that industry leaders of the future will need to be experts in social media and perhaps even be fluent in Chinese. But more than anything, the industry needs young people like Zimmerman who are willing to commit to the business at a young age.
What helped Zimmerman is like so many people in the industry, forestry was in his blood. He grew up on a tree farm in Rainier on property that his great-grandfather bought in the 1920s.
The wildfires raging across the West are spurring calls for congressional action to change the way that wildfires are funded, but they are also raising a lot of complaints about congressional inaction. When community leaders call on Congress to pass one of the bills that would free up more money to fight wildfires, they are also making their pleas with more than a hint of exasperation.
As we wrote last week, there are two wildfire funding proposals in Congress:
-- A bill supported by President Obama and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), among others, that would treat wildfires as natural disasters and free up more firefighting money and preserve money for thinning and other fire reduction activity.
-- A bill from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others that would also free up more money to fight forest fires, but in addition, it would require the Forest Service to focus on thinning 7.5 million acres and give the timber industry a bigger role in the process.
The wildfire season in the Northwest this summer is unprecedented. Eighteen large fires have burned 900,000 acres in Washington and Oregon, including the largest single wildfire in Washington state history. The Carlton Complex Fire has raged across north-central Washington since July 14, burning more than 250,000 acres and destroying 300 homes. The fire, burning for 11 days, is still only 55 percent contained and threatens an additional 1,100 homes.
The human impacts of the Carlton Complex Fire are wide reaching, like the man who died from a stroke while trying to protect his home, much of the city of Pateros being burned to the ground and fruit farms being destroyed.
The fires also rage as Congress is considering two different bills that would increase the amount of money the U.S. Forest Service has to fight wildfires.
The momentum behind the rise of tall wood buildings around the world is impossible to stop. The positive developments just keep coming. A Yale University study showing the massive environmental benefits behind wood construction. The U.S. federal government spending $1 million to train architects and developers about the benefits of large wood buildings, and another $1 million on a design competition to "demonstrate the architectural and commercial viability" of using wood for high-rise construction.
Tall wood buildings going up around Europe and Canada. One of the world's leading architecture firms, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, saying that even larger wood buildings - hundreds of feet tall - are technically possible, environmentally friendly and financially competitive. The Pacific Northwest becoming a potential hub for wood buildings in the U.S., with an Idaho timber company becoming the first to sell cross-laminated timber (the key component in large wood buildings) in America.
But what hasn't happened until now is the construction of a tall, modern wood building in the United States.
We've written a lot over the years about forest collaboratives, in which local and federal leaders, along with timber companies and conservation groups, band together to reach common solutions. In an age of lawsuits and federal forest mismanagement, these collaboratives could be the future of forestry.
When even the New York Times op-ed page calls for more active management of our country's wilderness, it's clear that the time is ripe for the disparate groups that care about the state of our forests to start collaborating.
The Capital Press this week has a great story exploring the challenges and benefits of several collaboratives in Washington and Oregon.
Just about every week comes news of a lawsuit from an environmental group trying to stop a timber project. If you watch the news closely, it can appear like some environmental groups have never met a forestry project that they didn't want to challenge in court.
The situation has become so ridiculous that many environmental groups themselves have said, "There has got to be another way" and are now working with timber companies and local, federal and tribal leaders on forest collaboratives across the West to get sustainable timber projects going.
But there are still groups that seem to think that serving as a roadblock is a virtue onto itself, without any regard for the value in a project.
For people who don't understand how sustainable forestry works, it can be easy to issue wide proclamations like "Don't cut down any trees!" or "Don't print that email!" When you have no idea timber can be harvested sustainably and help improve forest health or how much timber contributes to our world, perhaps it's inevitable that you would fall back on empty platitudes that don't have any connection to how forests actually interact with humanity.
We wrote last fall about a speech from James McDonald, the sustainability manager for International Paper, that debunked the myths that lead to people thinking they have to avoid printing emails or buying paper products.
Now enter Bill Cook, a district forester for the Michigan State University Extension. Cook wrote a column this month entitled, "It's OK to cut trees!" Cook says that wood is better for the environment than concrete, steel or oil, boosts the economy in rural communities and when harvested sustainably, makes forests healthier.
A proposal by President Obama to change the way wildfire fighting is funded has received bipartisan support in Congress from Western lawmakers, support from many Western governors and support from many editorial boards.
According to the Twin Falls (Idaho) News-Times, Obama's plan would "treat and fund the increasing number of catastrophic fires around the country as natural disasters, ultimately freeing up money to focus on prevention of such disasters. Often these catastrophic fires require more money than is available, leaving the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to pull funding from other areas, including fire fuel reduction programs."
So why isn't Obama's plan law already? Instead of being approved by federal lawmakers, the proposal is stirring debate about federal forest policy and riling up tension in an already bitterly divided Congress.