In recent media coverage, anti-bio-mass activists are claiming that bio-mass plants will strip our forests clean, and that the removal of large quantities of wood chips will not be sustainable. As a landowner, tree farmer and forestry worker since I was big enough to carry an axe, I offer a few thoughts on the bio-mass plant's actual potential impact on our regional forests.
Forest owners who look for any reasonable return on their investment (ROI) in the land, including annual taxes, insurance and maintenance, need to harvest and sell forest products. If not, the owners are inevitably compelled to sell or develop the land, so they can get their money back out of the forest and into more practical investments.
My family has lovingly cared for several hundred beautiful and productive acres in Russell for over 50 years. Our labor of love means constant concern with the costs versus benefits, maintenance tasks, market forces, government regulations and programs, rights and responsibilities involved in tree farming. These challenges, along with mandated forestry and harvesting methods, have changed a lot over the past half century, and mostly for the better.
Here in Massachusetts, they are tightly-regulated and programmed to favor sustainability. The modern practice of "selective cutting" was invented and mandated for this purpose. It has eliminated clear-cutting of the forests of our southern New England region in the past 50 years. Another key shift is that forest ownership has become so fragmented (small lots) and demographically diverse that many landowners do not even consider harvesting unless a forester advocates it to improve the health and beauty of the forest, wildlife habitat, etc.
For centuries, our forests were logged by and for the wood industries, buying the most valuable trees (e.g. mature/healthy/straight oak, pine, hard maple, cherry), while there has been no reliable market for the low-value wood (e.g. soft maple, hemlock, beech and crooked/damaged/diseased trees). Timber harvesting also generates a huge amount of slash (tree-tops and branches) that is usually wasted. You might think that pulpwood and firewood would offer adequate outlets for this "junk" wood, but in fact chronic low demand and prices have produced minimal benefit. Selective cutting has not solved this major problem.
The junk and dead trees continually build up in the forests, crowding out natural regeneration of better quality, higher-value trees. It's just like weeds in your vegetable or flower garden. Walk in any local forest or tree farm with a forester and you will find unmistakable proof of this fact.
At last, in our lifetime, bio-mass power plants offer a cost-effective system and incentive for loggers and landowners to remove the tree tops and "weed out" the junk trees that otherwise clog up the forest and the log landings. It should be mentioned that improved bio-mass harvesting practices are being developed to ensure that enough twig and leaf matter is left in the woods to keep the soil nutrient-rich.
While the pay for bio-mass will always be relatively low, bio-mass will create a reliable market that will encourage loggers to invest in the equipment and add it to their list of services. Bio-mass will encourage landowners to get the junk wood out of their forests, and allow the forests to regenerate with higher-quality, faster-growing, higher value trees. It's a win-win-win situation all around.
The big question is "Will bio-mass encourage clear-cutting or mass destruction of our forests?" The answer is: No. With all the powerful factors listed above, the most compelling reason is pure dollars and sense. Why would anyone in their right mind take a tree worth a hundred dollars as a sawlog, and instead chip it up into one dollars worth of bio-mass? That would be like you driving your nice new Lexus to the scrap yard and collecting $50 for the metal.
Here's the take-away: Bio-mass will never be a danger to our forests. Bio-mass will never create a high-profit market for wood, but it will be a nice way to get paid for your trash, while cleaning up the forest environment, making long-term forest ownership more economically viable, generating electricity we all need from renewable sources, and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.
So I guess the final question is: How silly do you think foresters, landowners, tree farmers, loggers are, that they would sell their most valuable commodities for pennies on the dollar? Even if you have no interest at all in the history, science or general facts of the matter, please at least try to understand the economics that drive the industry.
If good citizens are really concerned about losing our forests, they ought to advocate in favor of biomass removal and other good forestry practices, and to advocate against commercial development, suburban sprawl and the two-acre minimum building lot. We could devise incentives for farmers, golf courses, developers and open-space owners to plant more trees. Or simply buy up as much land as possible, and grow more trees; then personally and freely choose to harvest, or not.
Moss Hill Tree Farm, Russell