On May 1, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) urged Congress to deal with wildfire funding before the beginning of the 2014 wildfire season.  Already, the 2014 season is expected to exceed the current wildfire budget by $470 million. Senator Wyden remarked, “It is time to break the destructive cycle that underfunds fire prevention and shorts forest management and start treating the largest wildfires that rage across the West every year for what they are – natural disasters.”  His remarks echo what scientists and forest managers have been urging for some time – break the cycle of dangerous and costly fires by funding hazardous fuels reduction projects.

To incentivize wildfire reduction practices, co-benefits of forest thinning must be realized. Wood-to-energy plants are one solution, powered by forest residuals that are not appropriate for the timber industry and construction debris and that would otherwise be sent to landfills.  Less discussed is the opportunity for forestry products to be incorporated into long-lived wood construction materials. A holistic response to hazardous fuel reduction would include: high value timber, lower value trees, limbs and branches for wood-composite materials, and forest residuals for wood-to-energy projects.

Despite recent attacks on wood-to-energy plant emissions, they offer the opportunity to reduce wildfire risk and improve air quality as compared to open burning of forest biomass. While open burns of the thinned material is less than ideal, it’s often the only alternative to placing it in a landfill – which is not only expensive, it produces methane as it decomposes, a potent greenhouse gas (GHG). On April 22, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) announced that it is expanding its Hazardous Fuels Wood-to-Energy Grant program.  It will provide $2.8 million to engineering design for wood energy facilities and $1.7 million in funding for the Statewide Wood Energy Team cooperative, which provides funding for technical and financial workshops as well as community outreach. According to USFS Chief Tom Tidwell, “building stronger markets for innovative wood products supports sustainable forestry, reduces wildfire risk, and creates energy savings for rural America.” The USFS announcement came shortly after news of the first biomass gasification plant in California, to be operated by Phoenix Energy. The plant will be located in Placer County, CA, near Lake Tahoe, and is part of the area’s wildfire threat reduction activities, and will produce electricity, heat and biochar. According to Placer County’s biomass coordinator, Brett Storey, “we are delighted to have an environmentally superior way of managing forest health and fire risk than what has been the norm. To reduce fire risk in an economical way while creating jobs and bringing investment in the County is a great bonus."

Both of these developments highlight the great potential of biomass-energy, but Tidwell’s comment – "we need stronger markets for innovative wood products," could not be more germane. Wood-to-energy is only one piece of the puzzle in maintaining healthy forests.  The manufacture of engineered wood products can also provide great local economic value, as well as providing carbon sequestration in long-lived wood products. Their use also offsets the production of energy intensive steel and concrete.  Just one example of constructive reuse of forestry residues is in British Columbia, where lodge pole pine trees have been decimated by pine beetles.  These trees need to be removed to allow forests to recover, and many of these trees are being repurposed into cross-laminated timber (CLT), a material that has strength comparable to steel and concrete!  Cross-laminated timber is only one exciting example of the many useful products that can be provided by sustainable forestry management.