Exploiting Private Forests for Bioenergy

– by Roy Keene

The debate over a single wood powered electrical generator in Eugene has been myopically focused on just one project and one proposed fuel source. Supporters for Seneca Sawmill Co.’s proposed power plant have yet to publicly mention that slash could be replaced with chipped trees as fuel prices rise, or that this plant could be the first of many as wood-generated electricity becomes more profitable.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “The Eugene-Springfield area is one of the largest wood products processing areas in the world.” This area is also the epicenter for a huge volume of industrially owned forest biomass. With industry’s infrastructure in place and hundreds of thousands of acres in tree plantations, our area is ideally positioned for wood-fueled electrical power generating. Once Seneca has perfected their generating process and shown profits by selling electricity back to the grid, similar proposals and projects can be expected — especially as more federal “green” energy subsidies become available.

In the short term, logging and chipping are dependent on fossil fuels, so cheaper oil means more profit made by chipping. Over the long term, biomass price will be more competitive as oil supply diminishes.When logging slash alone can not meet increasing demands for wood biomass, chipping trees will become more profitable than growing timber.

Chips are already nearly as valuable as an equal volume of wood processed into boards. Plantations with trees too small to saw may contain several thousand cubic feet per acre of biomass. As it becomes financially more efficient to convert wood into electricity, the integrity of Lane County’s forests and tree farms will be at greater risk.

The arrival of wood-fueled power generators heralds a final stage in industrial forest conversion — a conversion that reduces old growth forests to saw timber stands, then to poles, and finally to chip wood. As tree size shrinks, so does the work force and the communities that depend on wood products employment. As a few timber barons become wealthier, the rest of us — left with devalued forests, degraded water, disrupted fisheries and declining jobs — become poorer. Without slowing the final stages of forest plunder, Lane County will, as other regions have already, inherit an impoverished fiber farm legacy.

The private forest, when compared to the public sector, is unprotected from liquidation. This is the forest that surrounds our urban centers, the one our water comes from, a forest already doused with poisons and algae-producing fertilizers. With the growth of wood-generated power and the economic feasibility of chipping young trees, there is substantial incentive for further forest exploitation.

Oregon’s private forest practice rules were designed to protect logging ahead of forest resources or public health. Eighty-five percent of most watersheds can still be logged in a fell swoop, and trees of any age can be cut. Re-establishing fiber plantations through rapidly successive clear-cutting requires increasing amounts of herbicides and fertilizers. Our counties and cities, no matter how they are affected by these archaic practices, are legislatively prevented from creating 21st century protective rules.

Considering the course that wood-fueled generating could take in Lane County, harvest tree age and rate of cut need to be restricted through rules or taxation to sustain forest and human resources. Since Oregon’s largest forest owners receive hundreds of millions of dollars annually in unearned tax subsidies, why not reverse tax subsidies to slow their “fiberization” of our forests?

Our leaders would do well to move beyond quibbling over Seneca’s single power plant and the proportional increase in air pollution it will generate. They should be envisioning how to protect Lane County’s forest-dependent environment and quality of life from a future proliferation of wood fueled electrical generators, at home or abroad.

Roy Keene of Eugene, Oregon is a forestry consultant and real estate broker.

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