October 25, 2008

Analysis of Woody Biomass Case Studies

After every thinning operation of forest management (see the before/after picture above) there is an accumulation of woody biomass (see below).
Woody biomass is the lowest-value material removed from the forest, usually logging slash, small-diameter trees, tops, limbs, or trees that can not be sold as timber. However, in the emerging renewable energy paradigm shift, this biomass has suddenly acquired added value as a potential feedstock for conversion to biofuels and biopower. So there is a pull of demand for this feedstock that did not exist before. Couple that with the push to reduce the impacts of global warming, accumulations of woody biomass in the forests are seen as a two-prong threat. First, they dry out to become combustible fuelwood to spark wildfires and second, as they rot they emit greenhouse gases.

So the collection, impacts, and the logistics involved in removal of these piles is a new subject of research and debate. Numerous case studies have been collected that examine the impacts of woody biomass on forest fires (both left standing in the forest and left piled after forest management).

I reported on the case studies accumulated and referenced online by the Joint Fire Science Program. A new report has been issued by the Forest Guild titled
Synthesis of Knowledge from Woody Biomass Removal Case Studies that provides an analysis of the case studies focusing on seven main themes that emerged from collecting and comparing them: objectives, collaboration, ecology, fire, economics, implementation, and regional differences.

Its final conclusions are that all aspects of biomass removals from forests are evolving - expanding markets, harvest technology, restoration of fire-adapted eco-systems, collaborative partnerships, contractor experience, and guidelines for best management practices. Funding challenges for science and implementation of new forest management remain. However -

"Rising oil prices, carbon concerns, wildfire hazard reduction requirements, and interest in renewable fuels may help expand markets and thereby expand the number of forests where biomass removals are profitable."

Profits are important, in the absence of other sources of funding, to make evolution of woody biomass management environmentally as well as economically sustainable.

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