Since 1997, more than 40 million acres of forests across the West have been devastated by pine beetle. The beetle is a natural predator but historic timber management and climatic conditions have given advantage to the species in current times. The end result is tinderbox forests across the Intermountain region.
Fire is another natural predator in the forest. The increasing kindling in the forest—such as the bug killed trees—together with growing development in the wildland urban interface (WUI) are a dire mix.
Recycling dead and dying trees through harvest and re-use is one method to reduce the problem. Though the timber value of small diameter wood is low, there are beneficial uses. The wood can be used for firewood, fence posts and poles, even garden mulch, but these are small time players. The real potential is in biomass but existing uncertainties are making investment tenuous.
The inability of the Forest Service to provide a continuous supply of material is troublesome. It is not a lack of biomass material available on National Forest land, nor a question of the benefits from removing the material, rather it is the process of contracting for timber removal that is costly and time consuming. The Forest Service expenditure on procedure to allow timber harvest, even for restoration, is excessive and slow.
Another barrier to investment in biomass is forthcoming regulation on emissions. In spring of last year the EPA instigated, then suspended, the ‘tailoring rule. The rule would tax emissions from biomass energy production at a rate equal to fossil fuel emissions. The tax would marginalize the profitability of biomass production.
There is a significant difference in the carbon cycle between wood and fossil fuel energies. Wood sequesters carbon from the atmosphere in its living, tree, form, then emits it back into the atmosphere when burned for energy. Put simply, it has net zero atmospheric emissions. Fossil fuel moves carbon that is held in the earth and releases it into the atmosphere when burned, causing a net increase in atmospheric carbon.
Recycling small diameter forest products is one answer that could help reduce the risk, and therefore the costs, of catastrophic wildfire in WUI, while providing renewable energy. The fight to get there, however, is a battle between enviropreneurs, who see good environmental results from profitable economic activity, and environmental advocacy groups that see profit as always evil and exploitive.