The role of forests in meeting proposed clean energy mandates has become a sticking point as lawmakers consider broader climate and energy legislation.
At issue is a definition of what sources of biomass are "renewable" -- a word that is easy to say but harder to put into practice. Varying interpretations have so far appeared in everything from the tax code to the farm bill. The tension comes from the balancing of interests typical of land-use policy decisions.
Without looser restrictions, some fear that renewable fuel and electricity mandates may be harder to meet. That argument is especially strong in the Southeast, which has wide swaths of forests but is poor in other renewable resources like wind and solar.
But environmentalists oppose easing restrictions on forests, arguing that natural forest habitats could wind up being harvested or thinned with too much enthusiasm or even undergo wholesale conversion to tree farms.
Add into the mix the interests of forest landowners suffering from the economic slump, who need income to justify keeping their lands out of developers' hands, along with those of pulp and paper companies that fear rising raw material prices, and the issue becomes even more muddied.
And with another wildfire season approaching, land managers cite a pressing need to fund projects to remove the thin trees and forest brush that fuel catastrophic wildfires.
"Defining forest management and forest biomass is really complicated," said Rita Neznek, vice president of public affairs for the American Forest Foundation. "The convoluted definitions are all trying to address that."
As lawmakers work to bring climate and energy legislation to a vote this year, Democrats and Republicans, most with substantial forest acreage in their home states, are pushing to make more wood material available from both public and private lands.
In 2007, Congress passed a new renewable fuels standard, a mandate for 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022. But the law banned most wood from both federal lands and privately owned natural forests that were not already active plantations from qualifying. Those off-limits private lands include pristine acres, but also include forests that are regularly harvested without clear-cutting.
Over recent months, a group of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle has advocated replacing these restrictive terms with a far more permissive definition from the 2008 farm bill. Environmentalists say that bill had environmental criteria tucked in elsewhere and was not intended to be a massive energy mandate.
Protections, environmental groups assert, might be necessary to counteract incentives put in place by the law. A report by Resources for the Future (RFF), a Washington, D.C., think tank, found that the 2007 energy bill could result in a 15 percent increase in wood prices by 2015 and a 60 percent increase in the consumption of raw wood by 2022. RFF's model finds that the extra demand could spur offshore wood production, foreshadowing a repeat of the current battle over the worldwide impacts of domestic corn ethanol production.
And Nathanael Greene, renewable energy policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), estimates that if all federal incentives for woody biomass energy were combined -- including the renewable fuels standard, the electricity standard and the carbon price that comes with cap and trade -- biomass demand could roughly equal twice the annual average timber harvest.
"If the federal government is going to put big incentives on the table, then it's appropriate for them to prohibit the use of the most destructive practices and the most fragile sources of biomass," Greene said.
Fight over forest thinning
Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Conservation, Credit, Energy and Research Subcommittee, was one of many to call the current definitions problematic at a hearing last week. The definition would exclude the majority of land in Pennsylvania, he said, most of which has not ever been a plantation.
That's true of much of the Northeast, according to Michael Goergen, executive vice president of the Society of American Foresters (SAF).
Forest issues tend to be regional, so other regions have different interests. Members of the House Agriculture Committee are also negotiating to include material thinned or slashed from federal lands in the renewable electricity standard being considered in the climate and energy bills in the House and Senate. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who represent states with large swaths of land managed by the Forest Service, say that access to federal forests will be necessary to develop renewable wood energy projects in their home states.
In the West, the Forest Service also is burdened with millions of acres of forests to manage for wildfire season. Prescribed burns, which release carbon back to the atmosphere, are the cheapest way to reduce fuel loads, whereas thinning the forests manually is more expensive. Having an end-use market for the piles of useless material that result would reduce wildfire risk and improve forest carbon management, said Christopher Recchia, director of the nonprofit Biomass Energy Resource Center.
Most recently, the Agriculture Department last week announced $57 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding for 30 biomass utilization and wood-to-energy grants in 14 states, an expenditure that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack highlighted yesterday in a meeting with the Western Governors' Association. In addition to creating new renewable energy sources, the department noted its priority to create markets for the low-value stockpiles of wood that could help fund wildfire projects.
Forest owners are slow to react to price signals
In the Southeast, however, unlike in the West, much of the forests are already plantations that provide material to the pulp and paper industry.
Active plantations in these states would already be able to participate, but much of the logging slash and low-value biomass from these lands is already burned for energy, said Bob Abt, a professor at North Carolina State University. Forest owners are usually slow to react to increasing wood prices and may not necessarily find it worthwhile to supply new energy markets instead of traditional industries, he said.
Others see renewable energy incentives as key to keeping trees -- and the carbon they store -- on the land. "What has happened traditionally is that a landowner has said, 'OK, we're going to grow the forests for high-value timber until such time the development pressures are high enough to reward us to sell it off,'" Recchia said. "That's not a sustainable model, either."
But environmentalists with long, and sometimes even short, memories aren't comforted by arguments that federal and natural forests could be easily protected by language in a bill that allows such open access to lands.
In Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the Forest Service long ago awarded pulp mills 50-year contracts of guaranteed wood supply to manufacture everything from diapers to nylons.
Franz Matzner, forest and public land advocate with NRDC, said that the unfettered demand created by this misguided policy led to the destruction of old-growth trees into the 1990s. "Once the incentive is in place to drive the demand, and the infrastructure is in place, feeding the beast becomes the driver -- not sound management policies that respect multiple-values," he said in an e-mail.
But Erica Rhoads, policy director for SAF, discounted the idea that there would be a wood harvesting frenzy, saying that protections that are already on the books would already prevent this from happening.
Rhoads also noted that today, the West has fewer sawmills because of environmental safeguards. "Just because there's a demand out there doesn't mean the Forest Service is going to supply it," she said.