Biomass in Washington has bright future

2013-10-23 Ashley Bach

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark has long been a supporter of active forest management, including the use of biomass. (He even wrote an op-ed in the Seattle Times about it.) Recent news coverage shows how the state is moving forward on forest thinning and biomass in Eastern and Central Washington.

In Northeast Washington, Goldmark's agency - the state Department of Natural Resources - is offering financial incentives to forest landowners to thin their forests, according to the Capital Press

Steve Harris, landowner assistance manager for (DNR) in Colville, Wash., said bark beetle mortality and spruce budworm defoliation are two primary issues in the region...

“No action (by landowners) is not necessarily a good action, because sooner or later the beetles, fires or spruce budworms are going to take action,” Harris said. “It’s best to be proactive in the forest and that’s what this program is all about.”

In the same part of the state, a Colville timber company - Vaagen Brothers Lumber Inc. - was recently awarded a $30 million, 10-year stewardship contract to more actively manage 54,000 acres in the Colville National Forest. 

The Yakima Herald-Republic this week took a deeper look at how Washington DNR is trying to improve forest health on the east side of the Cascades. It's not nearly as simple as just increasing the use of biomass energy or thinning more trees.

There are two main options for restoration — prescribed burns and mechanical thinning. Both are expensive and only being done on a limited basis in the Wenatchee National Forest because a growing portion of the shrinking Forest Service’s budget goes to fighting wildfires every year.

Both options thin out brush, downed limbs and thick stands of small trees to open up the forests, making them less susceptible to devastating fires. But mechanical thinning — so called because it employs chain saws and other equipment — can result in both marketable small logs and lots of woody debris, which scientists call biomass.

“There is an imperative to finding economic ways of using this material,” said Aaron Everett, the state forester for the Department of Natural Resources. “There isn’t enough public funding on earth to do this restoration work in all of the forests that need it.”

Bolstering the state's biomass industry helps make all the work pencil out, according to DNR. The state even developed a biomass calculator to determine how much biomass Washington could produce. The calculator indicated that a integrated approach is best.

(Lloyd McGee, a former timber industry forester who now works for The Nature Conservancy,) sees biomass projects becoming profitable only if they work in tandem with traditional logging.

“What this tool is showing is it’s pretty cost prohibitive to work with biomass alone,” McGee said. Instead, he envisions an integrated forest products plan that adds biomass collection to already profitable timber harvest and hauling.

Energy facilities fueled by biomass should be located near other forest product operations, such as sawmills and paper plants, he said.

Nonetheless, much promise remains.

The DNR’s Everett remains optimistic that the developing biomass industry, be it electricity, jet fuel, or pellets for stoves, will play a key role in restoring forest health and the forest economy in the region.

“The challenge for the project now is ensuring enough supply, at given costs, to convince investors,” he said.