Energy Biomass from Public Lands?

In an energy-starved world where peak-oil production probably has already been reached, the search for renewables intensifies.  Public forest lands, comprising   ~40%  of the nation’s non-reserved forest land base, will inevitably be called upon to  help meet the nation’s energy needs.  Indeed, energy biomass (firewood) production is perhaps the earliest and most wide-spread and accepted use of public land and this use, continued in other forms, constitutes a major opportunity for the restoration and betterment of forest ecosystems.

While many ecocentrists foresee widespread forest devastation from the utilization of this “new” resource, managers will welcome it as another tool in their kits, to be added to fire and conventional timber harvesting.  Here are some of the ways that biomass harvesting, using presently unmerchantable or unwanted material, can contribute to the betterment of the forest while meeting a public need.



Dense lodgepole pine stand - a prime candidate for fire or insect attack.

Perhaps the most obvious and widespread need/opportunity for energy biomass harvesting is the ubiquitous presence of overdense stands that urgently need thinning.  The large inventory increases and lack of management found in public forests has resulted in a condition common in every region and every timber type.  In these stands reducing the number of trees per acre will reduce fire hazard, vulnerability to insect and disease, and increase growth on the best quality trees.    A biomass market, whether for biofuels or power production, would allow utilization of wood that now is unwanted and has no commercial value.




The biomass on one acre of this stand has the energy value of 30 barrels of oil.

This stand of scrub hardwood on deep sand soils in the Apalachicola National Forest in Florida was once occupied by the native longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem.  Restoration of this system can only be accomplished by removing the oak and planting longleaf.   Harvesting the oak for energy biomass would accomplish this at minimum cost and, with current incentive payments, possibly at a modest profit.


The dense pine sapling/pole understory has made this abandoned cavity tree unsuitable habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker.

The red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW), an endangered species, requires open park-like woods.  Nesting woodpeckers abandoned this tree when the young pines reached the height of the nest cavity.  The pines are ideal size for an energy wood harvest, an action that would restore this stand to excellent RCW habitat and allow the birds to re-occupy the nest tree.




Tamarisk has invaded and completely captured this riparian area along Tonto Creek in Arizona.

Salt Cedar (Tamarisk sp.) is an aggressive non-native water-hungry small tree that now occupies over 1.5 million acres in the southwest.  Covering extensive areas on BLM and other public land, it has displaced native cottonwood and willow and is considered a factor in reducing water yields in this low-rainfall region.  Studies have indicated its suitability for use as energy biomass.


Beetle- or fire- killed trees in western U.S. could fuel scores of biomass-based power plants. Should it? Will it?


An emerging use of woody  biomass as an energy source, salvage timber, has become increasingly controversial.  The debate on this issue has defined, as perhaps never  before, the differences between “users” and “preservers”.




Logging slash: kilowatts or forest nutrients?

Logging debris, limbs, cull logs, and other unmerchantable  material left in the woods  or at the landings could be a major source of energy biomass.  In the west much of this material is piled or broadcast burned to reduce fire hazard.  What method of disposal best serves humanity and the environment?



Will public land managers, recognizing local, regional, and national needs as well as environmental constraints, be allowed to take the middle road?  Will the management of our public lands follow the direction established in 1905 by Secretary Wilson in his letter to the Chief Forester of the U.S.

“…where conflicting interests must be reconciled the question will always be  decided from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run. These general principles… can be successfully applied only when the administration of each reserve is left very largely in the hands of the local officers,  under the eye of thoroughly trained and competent inspectors. ”