May 25, 2008

Sustainable Forestry for Bioenergy and Bio-based Products

To many preservationists the term "Sustainable Forestry" is an oxymoron. To them all management of forests is unnatural, and therefore unsustainable. I have two questions for them:

1 - If your garden was infested with bugs, suffering from lack of soil nutrients, invaded by weeds, recently burned, or eroding from water damage, would you intervene by managing it? If yes, then why should forests be treated differently?
2 - Hasn't civilization already changed the character of our natural forests to a point from which they will never return to a "natural" state?

Even the experts of the USDA Forest Service would agree with the second question. Some of the problems that are plaguing our public forest lands are the result of aggressive fire suppression of the mid-1900's that were initiated in response to massive fires of the period. If we want to restore our forests, we need to return them to a profile more closely resembling the 1800's with care to make sure that the restored profile is more sustainable. But it will take management to get there, and management to sustain it in the face of growing population, climate change, and global competition for energy feedstocks.

Forest management is necessary. The expanded interface between wildlands and civilization (called "Wildland Urban Interface") is inevitable and the current high density (number of trees per acre) of undermanaged forests is changing their character. The consequence could be a spiral of forest wildfire and decay causing unprecedented greenhouse gas emissions, leading to more global warming, leading to more greenhouse gas emissions. The magnitude of the problem potential dwarfs emissions from other sources.

The forest industry is ready to lead the way to more sustainable forest management practices. The Southern Forest Research Partnership (SFRP) is a leader in research examining how the use of woody biomass can be expanded to aid the health of our forests while insuring that health is sustainable. SFRP research is available online with digital manuals and powerpoint presentations that can be used to train the public about environmentally sustainable bioenergy production systems.

I met up with Dr. Larry Biles, Interim Director of SFRP, at the 2008 Smallwood conference in Madison, WI who had barely enough time during his presentation to outline the wealth of SFRP information available online. Their 300-page training manual is located the Forest Bioenergy website (under Training Tools). They also have a forest encyclopedia (actually a series of several encyclopedias that focus on specific topics) and he highly recommended both the Forest and Range and Interface South websites that provide useful information for practitioners of forest management.

He gave me a CD of the training materials and I found them to be extremely well written and up-to-date (having been published in September, 2007). They really do "span the gap between knowledge and application."

Of particular interest to me was Module 7: Environmentally Sustainable Bioenergy Production Systems:

This module provides an overview of adaptive forest management along with international agreements and various certification systems. It covers issues related to forest soils, water quality, and biodiversity conservation. Specific issues include soil compaction, streamside management zones, and the management of dead wood.

The final part of this module deals with designing low impact operations. Using tools and information presented previously, the readers learn how to plan a low-impact operation. A summary of the concept of best management practices and links are provided to each state’s specific BMP program. You will learn about the proper application of these practices to conserve and protect the environmental sustainability of the forest while maintaining biomass and timber productivity.

The SFRP and supporting organizations have provided a tremendous service collecting this information and providing straightforward media for its distribution and presentation. The slides are a gold mine for presenters who wish to engage stakeholders in decisions affecting the management of forests.

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