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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May 23, 2008

Engaging Forest Stakeholders through Stewardship Contracting

We have seen too many examples of mainstream media spinning and twisting the discourse between science research, environmental concern, and public opinion. I recently attended a workshop that showed a constructive approach that is taking root in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Back in early March I organized two side events at the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference (WIREC) on "Bioenergy and Communications." The humble objective of these panels was to address the challenge of communicating bioenergy information to the public and engaging stakeholders the colossal energy and environmental paradigm shifts that are predicted to occur over the next few decades. The panelists were terrific but the central question remained largely unanswered:

What new ways might exist to engage stakeholders in the constructive development of economically sustainable solutions to environmentally sustainable challenges?

The federal Stewardship Contracting program is a good example of one innovative approach. It is providing a constructive means for bringing diverse stakeholders together to plan and finance forest restoration programs while rebuilding the economic infrastructure of local communities.

Last week the first of four traveling workshops titled Biomass Utilization and Stewardship Contracting was held in Auburn, California. It was hosted by the Sierra Business Council and sponsored by Resource Innovations of the University of Oregon, UC / Berkeley Cooperative Extension, USDA Forest Service (Region 5), the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and Placer County (site of the recent Angora Fire in Lake Tahoe).

During these two days of presentations attendees witnessed the testimonies of Forest Service managers, community leaders, environmentalists, academicians, consultants, and fire fighters. These experts spoke knowledgeably about the challenges of forest restoration from their unique perspectives. Then examples were given of existing projects that were changing the environmental and economic landscapes of the forests they were designed to restore.

Four stewardship examples from the Pacific Northwest are amply documented in Redefining Stewardship: Public Lands and Rural Communities in the Pacific Northwest - a publication prepared by Ecotrust and Resource Innovations.

Besides meeting some terrific local leaders, what I learned was that patient community discourse is necessary in the formulation of sustainable projects. It is preferable to engage stakeholders up front rather than suffer the delays of reactive litigation to plans that have not been fully vetted by those most vested in the results of forest restoration - the local community.

Similar workshops will be held in Sonora (May 22-23), Bishop (May 28), and Chester (May 30).

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May 6, 2008

Up in Smoke: Reforesting California after wildfires

The problem I have with Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and Life Cycle Analyses (LCA) is that they attempt to measure only the impact of a new project upon the status quo. They stop short of analyzing what will occur if no attempt at remediation is done. Below is the finding of one report based on data secured from the Forest Service. It seeks to compare action to inaction rather than just the environmental impact of the project itself.

California Losing More Than 30,700 Acres of Forestland per Year
Federal Government's Replanting in Wake of Fires Lags

Following the 1992 Cleveland Fire in the Eldorado National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service replanted some lands, and left some untouched in an experimental ecoplot. Today, trees stand more than 17 feet tall on replanted lands, but brush dominates the untreated ecoplot.

AUBURN, Calif., April 29, 2008 - California has lost forests on federally owned land at the rate of more than 30,700 acres per year over the last seven years because of a lack of replanting following catastrophic forest fires, according to a review of Forest Service data by The Forest Foundation and the National Association of Forest Service Retirees.

The 30,700 acres lost annually is equivalent to losing a forest slightly larger than a city the size of San Francisco. If this failure to reforest federal land in California were to continue over the next 100 years, this would lead to the loss of 3 million acres of forestland and conversion into brush fields.

From 2001 to 2007, over 143,500 acres of forestland outside wilderness owned by the federal government has not been replanted and has been left to turn into brush.

"The federal government is consistently unable to replant and restore forests following devastating wildfires," said Doug Piirto, department head for the Natural Resources Management Department at California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo and a member of the Forest Foundation's Scientific Advisory Panel.

"The result is a loss of forestland and a loss of all the benefits these forests provide - from filtering our water to absorbing greenhouse gases," Dr. Piirto said. "We need to commit ourselves to restoring our forests by doing all that is necessary: preparing the land, reforesting and following up with the required maintenance to ensure a healthy forest in the long term."

On the heels of tree-planting celebrations last week to mark Arbor Day, the deforestation on federal forestland stands in stark contrast.

Over the course of the seven years, a total of 304,000 acres of federally owned forestland were deforested, with just 88,900 of those acres replanted. As a result, nearly 71 percent of the previously forested land has been replaced by brush.

The loss of forests limits the amount of carbon that could be absorbed by forests in California and help the state's fight against global warming. According to the non-profit group American Forests, a restored acre has the ability of absorbing and storing 200 tons of carbon dioxide - or the equivalent of absorbing carbon emitted by 35 minivans.
"This deforestation deprives future generations of the forests we have enjoyed," said George M. Leonard, Chair of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees and former Associate Chief of the US Forest Service. "Without replanting, the land turns to brush and becomes even more susceptible to another fire and more devastation to forestland."

In 2007 alone, more than 100,000 acres of national forest land in California were burned into a deforested condition due to wildfires, compared to approximately 50,000 acres in 2006.
"Replanting has long been the policy and practice of the Forest Service," Mr. Leonard said. "We must maintain that tradition and not allow tens of thousands of acres to be lost at a time when our forests are more needed than ever."

In 1993, for example, following the 1992 Cleveland fire in California that consumed more than 20,000 acres, reforestation occurred - leaving us today with trees that are 15 to 20 feet tall. As part of an experiment, a small "ecoplot" was left untouched to see what would happen. Today, that land is filled with brush.

Unlike government-owned lands, private forest landowners quickly remove dead trees and other fuels for additional fires and then replant. For example, after the 2000 Storrie fire in Plumas and Lassen Counties, local private land manager W.M. Beaty and Associates removed dead trees and fuels on the 3,200 acres it managed that burned in the fire. Its reforestation efforts, including the planting of nearly one million trees, were completed by 2004. Some trees in this young, mixed conifer forest are more than 7 feet tall.

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