june 2014

Q: How do we shape a resilient forest, reduce fuels and limit large fires?

One answer: Instead of building firelines, let’s build our forest bioenergy industries

The full cost of California’s 2013 Rim Fire are arriving and they are staggering if they are to be believed. Federal and state agencies spent over $127 million on suppression through October. Additional monies have no doubt been spent on immediate and emergency site rehabilitation throughout the fall and early winter.

These suppression and rehabilitation activities are considered direct costs in the parlance of fire economics. Recently, researchers at Earth Economics estimated that indirect and additional costs, which are related to environmental and property damage and which will take years to realize, could exceed $1.8 billion. That brings the total direct, indirect and additional cost of this one fire to over $2 billion, or, with a burned area of 256,000 acres, a total cost of over $7,800/acre. With individual fire costs like this it is no wonder wildfires are bankrupting our local, state and federal governments. While home protection in the WUI is cited more and more as a significant cause in the rising cost of wildfires, in the case of the Rim Fire, which certainly had areas of WUI protection, the majority of the total long-term cost is associated with environmental damage in turn caused by an over accumulation of fuels.

Finding a way to more aggressively remove hazardous fuels before the wildfire is the key to reducing these costs in the long-run and one emerging avenue to help defray the cost of fuel treatments is through bioenergy. Using wood for energy is not new in North America, in the 18th and 19th centuries wood was used extensively in the smelting of iron and up to and including the 21st century it is used to heat homes and sometimes entire towns.

What 1,000 tons of biomass looks like before it’s ground up – from a 19 ha (50 acre) “grinder” site with ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, and western larch.

Perhaps the greatest impediment is simple economics – the material that we need to remove is not worth very much and harvest, processing and transporting it is expensive – even though in many cases we are producing significant volumes/acre. There are a number of ways to look at this simple economic formula and improve the outcome. Most researchers agree that to improve the economic feasibility of a project you integrate the harvest of low-value woody biomass (hazardous fuels) with higher value, merchantable material (sawlogs). In essence you are subsidizing the operation through the removal of higher value material. Another important option is to increase the value of the end-product being made out of the biomass. Producing simple chips to be used in the production of electricity is at the extreme low end of the value scale while producing pellets, biocoal, biodiesel, bio-plastics, etc. is increasing value to the material and in turn improving procurement economics. Lastly, a strong case can be made for subsidies, whether it is a transportation subsidy to move material longer distances to utilities or factories, or harvest subsidies to help access more sites in need of treatment. As was pointed out in the introduction, we are now spending ridiculous amounts of taxpayers money on suppression and fire damage – money that could be better used in prevention.

The second category of impediment is less tangible than straight economics and involves policy, public perception and politics. From the policy side, making long-term access to moderate to large quantities of biomass from federal lands is almost impossible outside of Stewardship End-Result Contracting arrangements. An investor interested in building bioenergy infrastructure cannot secure a bank loan without a long-term guaranteed supply of feedstock. This particular policy is the only vehicle available to managers to help them solve landscape-scale fuels problems. Unfortunately it takes years to get a project off the ground and with the cut-backs in federal employee staffing there are now fewer and fewer staff to develop and oversee these projects.

An evolving set of policy impediments (and opportunities) revolve around carbon dynamics. The EPA currently considers the use of woody biomass in bioenergy to be carbon neutral. But some in academia and the environmental movement have been claiming the carbon value of woody biomass, lobbying not only the EPA but also the European Union, which oversees the importation of bioenergy products like wood pellets. Treating stands to reduce fire severity may result in conditions where the net carbon balance may be negative (respiring more carbon than storing) over the long-term when you factor in the carbon emissions from wood used to make heat or electricity plus emissions from maintenance treatments such as prescribed fire. However, what is often missed in this debate over carbon dynamics is the consequence of not treating the stand. A severely burned site will be a net source of carbon emissions for decades and in some cases centuries while a thinned and prescribe burned site will continue to store carbon.

Energy policy issues mirror the debate over carbon. Many of the same protagonists who argue that woody biomass in bioenergy is not carbon neutral also claim that it is not truly a clean and renewable energy source compared to wind, solar or geothermal. Many have argued about just how “clean” energy sources such as wind and solar are when you factor in the manufacture of component parts, transportation of the materials, maintenance of the grid, etc. Regardless, all of these energy sources are certainly “cleaner” than fossil fuels and should be pursued for the sake of reducing carbon emissions. However, none carries the threat of significant environmental, social, and economic damage if the resource isn’t exploited. If we don’t exploit the solar, wind, or geothermal resource there is no direct threat to society – the resource is passive. If we don’t exploit the excess biomass in our forests, as a society we will pay.

Therein lies the issue inherent in public perception. Many simply do not want to see trees cut down by chainsaws or feller-bunchers and transported from the site on logging trucks and would rather see it burned in a wildfire. In the absence of more proactive preventative measures that option has become our default; let a natural ignition solve the problem for us. Unfortunately, that option also comes with a hefty price tag and is not an option we can use everywhere. If we drill down into public opposition the greatest concerns are for biodiversity during the harvesting phase and air pollution from local bioenergy facilities.

One key issue — what trees to cut, what trees to leave — are easiest to address through prescription writing and early and frequent public discourse, while air pollution concerns are usually addressed through state and federal regulations. Long-term sustainability is a far more complex issue: the goal is to move in to a site, heavily thin and then prescribe burn it to remove the hazard, and maintain it that way into perpetuity. The goal is not long-term fiber production, or multi-generational jobs in forestry, or tax revenue for the local government; it’s hazard reduction and resilience. In reality the use of the bioenergy sector to solve the wildfire fuels problem follows more of a mining model than a traditional forest management model.

The nascent bioenergy sector holds great promise as an economically viable way to help us solve our hazardous fuels problem. While there are many impediments to moving the sector forward they are not insurmountable given the right level of interest in thinking outside the box and putting a serious and realistic effort into the tackling the problem. In the absence of a viable bioenergy sector option we will continue to see wildfire damages and costs soar.

CASE STUDY: the 4FRI Project, Arizona

The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) in northern Arizona is a large-scale project aimed at restoring the structure, pattern and composition of fire-adapted ecosystems across 1 million acres of the Kaibab, Coconino, Apache-Sitgreaves, and Tonto National Forests in Arizona.

Much of the thinning will focus on ponderosa pine forests. Due to over a century of fire-exclusion, the ponderosa have developed into high-density, high risk, stands of mostly small-diameter trees. In addition to providing for an improved natural environment (fuels reduction, forest health, wildlife habitat, etc.), the project is intended to create sustainable industrial capacity as well as increased employment.

The 4FRI project identifies the need for long-term support for a primary project partner, an aspect that may serve as a model elsewhere. In order to attract industries capable of financially supporting such an effort, the Forest Service offered a large volume of material and made it available over a long-enough time frame that the initial infrastructure investment could be paid off. Another important element is the integrated nature of harvest – removing traditional wood products (sawlogs) and bioenergy feedstock at the same time – achieved through the awarding of the project to a single entity. These and other innovative approaches will certainly aid in helping solve the large-scale wildfire threat issue facing us in the west.

About the author

Robert W. Gray is a fire ecologist and president of R.W. Gray Consulting Ltd., with over 30 years experience in the research and application of fire science, including fire regime reconstruction, fire behavior and effects analysis, national and international fire management policy, and hazardous fuel management. Recently he has focused on using the emerging bioenergy sector as an economical way to address fuel management issues. He’s consulted with the US Forest Service, US Bureau of Land Management, The World Bank, Parks Canada, and others. Gray serves on the Board of Directors of the Association for Fire Ecology.