Table Of Contents
Woody biomass from forest management is a renewable, low-carbon feedstock that can substitute for fossil fuels in the production of energy and other products — a potentially important tool in the national strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and resist global climate change. Markets for logging residues, small diameter trees, and other low-value forest products can add value to working forests, help provide financial alternatives to land clearing and development, and create incentives for investing in sustainable forest management. Forest thinning and removal of small-diameter, low value trees are integral parts of forest management for a number of values and objectives — biodiversity conservation, ecological restoration, wildfire prevention, and timber stand improvement. However, there is also the potential for increased demand to drive unsustainable levels of harvesting, with negative consequences for biodiversity, soil, and water conservation. Federal policies should strive to ensure the sustainability of woody biomass harvesting; this will go a long towards winning the public trust that is so essential if bioenergy is to be become a trusted and utilized component of the national energy system.
Although sustainability should be a cornerstone of federal biomass policy, it is important that federal laws and programs do not include highly prescriptive (or proscriptive) rules for where biomass can be harvested, for what purposes, or in what quantities. The United States possesses a huge diversity of forest types, representing a wide variety of ecological conditions and managed for an array of social values and objectives. A sound management prescription for one forest could be wholly inappropriate for another (even, at times, a few miles away). Instead, federal policies must promote informed site-level decision making that views biomass harvesting as one tool among many for achieving holistic forest stewardship objectives. Management plans, harvesting guidelines, conservation easements and collaborative decision making are important tools for developing creative and sustainable management directives, as well as ensuring that biomass harvesting will contribute to maximizing the full spectrum of ecological and social values that forests provide.
Despite the many benefits of woody biomass, the costs associated with harvesting, transporting, storing, and utilizing the material often exceed its value on the energy market. Some of this is due to the fact that the lower ticket price of fossil fuels does not include the negative social costs associated with climate change, and more cost-effective tools, equipment, and logistical processes are currently being developed. In the meanwhile, federal incentives are available that improve the economic feasibility of bioenergy projects. These incentives are costly, and can create unintended distortions in wood-fiber markets, but they will likely continue to be a part of federal energy policy for some time. In order to get the most from limited biomass feedstocks, it is preferable that these incentives treat all biomass applications (electricity, transportation fuels, thermal energy, and biobased products) equally, in proportion to the efficiency with which they reduce greenhouse gas emissions and substitute for high-carbon petroleum products. Federal policies also have an important role to play in promoting research and furthering the science of sustainable bioenergy. R&D programs, resource assessments, and extension funding are essential to realizing the full potential of woody biomass as a renewable, low-carbon energy source. Such investments will help ensure that woody biomass utilization will contribute to healthy, diverse forest ecosystems.