YAKIMA, Wash. — After more than 50 years working in and studying the forests of the Pacific Northwest, Jerry Franklin talks about the eastern Cascades with a sense of loss in his voice.
“The forests on the east slope were very tolerant of fire and it was a very stable system, but we changed all that,” said Franklin, a professor of forestry at the University of Washington.
The forests have grown unnaturally dense, choked with small trees and underbrush. What used to be open forest, dominated by big, fire-resistant ponderosa pine, has filled in with Douglas fir and other species after decades of fire suppression and timber harvests. Now, the forests are at high risk for deadly insect infestations and destructive, high intensity wildfires.
While there is near universal agreement that the forests on the eastern slopes of the Cascades are unhealthy and in serious need of restoration, how to pay for that work remains a complicated and controversial question.
There are two main options for restoration — prescribed burns and mechanical thinning. Both are expensive and only being done on a limited basis in the Wenatchee National Forest because a growing portion of the shrinking Forest Service’s budget goes to fighting wildfires every year.
Both options thin out brush, downed limbs and thick stands of small trees to open up the forests, making them less susceptible to devastating fires. But mechanical thinning — so called because it employs chain saws and other equipment — can result in both marketable small logs and lots of woody debris, which scientists call biomass.
“There is an imperative to finding economic ways of using this material,” said Aaron Everett, the state forester for the Department of Natural Resources. “There isn’t enough public funding on earth to do this restoration work in all of the forests that need it.”
Officials are trying to find a market-driven approach for the problem, focusing on expanding commercial uses for the biomass. Everett estimates it costs from $500 to $1,500 an acre for forest thinning, but he said that if there’s a market available for the material, the restoration can pay for itself.
“I look at biomass as not only a way to strengthen our forests, but also our forest economy,” Everett said. “We continue to focus on promoting sustainable biomass operations at the appropriate scale in places it is most needed.”
Biomass could have several uses, including generating electricity.
The technology to turn waste wood from logging into energy isn’t new. For more than a century, scrap wood has been burned at lumber mills to provide on-site power. Biomass could do the same to fuel modern power plants. It’s also possible to turn biomass into liquid fuel, similar to turning corn into ethanol.
Both ideas have supporters and detractors.
Some officials believe recent state standards requiring a certain amount of energy come from renewable resources will create a market for biomass. But others point to today’s low prices for power and high cost of transporting the biomass to a generating facility and say that it’s never going be economically viable.
“Everyone’s like ‘It’s just sitting out there, it’s free!’ But you have to get it out of there,” said Marla Bieker of Western Pacific Timber, which typically burns slash piles after logging. “Nobody is going to be hauling it somewhere at a cost to themselves.”
Unless harvest or restoration work ramps up, there might only be enough affordable biomass available in the eastern Cascades to support one or two more facilities similar to what Avista Utilities operates in Kettle Falls, according to Lloyd McGee, a former timber industry forester who now works for The Nature Conservancy.
For 30 years, Avista has operated a 50-megawatt power plant that burns wood waste to generate electricity.
Along with the 8-megawatt natural gas turbine on site, the plant provides power to nearly 46,000 homes. The plant burns 70 tons of wood an hour, contracting with sawmill operators for their waste wood.
Ron Gray, Avista’s fuel manager, said that the long term contracts he gets from sawmills are cheaper and more reliable than trying to contract material from forest managers.
“Without those mills, we wouldn’t be here,” Gray said. “If I have to pay somebody to go out in the woods (to get the material), it might be four or five times over (the cost of) sawmill suppliers.”
To help sort out the economics, DNR launched a biomass initiative in 2009 to fund research and pilot projects. As part of that initiative, the agency has created a Web-based calculator that estimates how much material would be readily available after logging or forest restoration treatments and how affordable it would be to haul in order to help investors and policy makers plan new facilities.
McGee sees biomass projects becoming profitable only if they work in tandem with traditional logging.
“What this tool is showing is it’s pretty cost prohibitive to work with biomass alone,” McGee said. Instead, he envisions an integrated forest products plan that adds biomass collection to already profitable timber harvest and hauling.
Energy facilities fueled by biomass should be located near other forest product operations, such as sawmills and paper plants, he said.
In his estimation, such an operation would be unlikely to succeed in Yakima or Ellensburg because there are few remaining mills to coordinate with. Beyond that, setting up a new facility requires supply commitments and it’s hard to get long-term contracts with the Forest Service, which manages much of the area’s forest lands.
“The Colville and Yakama tribes have the best chance for creating co-generation facilities since they have the predictable, sustainable supply and existing” lumber operations, McGee said.
The Yakama Nation has researched options using wood waste from its sawmill, logging operations and restoration efforts, but has not moved toward development on any projects at this time.
The Yakama Nation is part of a collaborative effort with the state and federal forest managers and the Nature Conservancy that is trying to find ways to increase restoration work done in the region, called the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative. The project’s coordinator, Karen Bicchieri said they are focusing on figuring out how public lands can increase the supply of timber and biomass material available to the industry.
Bicchieri said that because electricity is so cheap right now, it’s hard for new biomass-to-energy projects to be cost-competitive. That’s why Central Washington University scrapped plans for a biomass facility to provide heat for the campus.
Instead of focusing on energy projects, Bicchieri said biomass can be used to make pellets or compressed logs for wood stoves.
More analysis is needed to see if the technology to turn waste wood into jet fuel will be cost-effective, but the state is funding research to find out.
The DNR’s Everett remains optimistic that the developing biomass industry, be it electricity, jet fuel, or pellets for stoves, will play a key role in restoring forest health and the forest economy in the region.
“The challenge for the project now is ensuring enough supply, at given costs, to convince investors,” he said.