My Turn/Bill Copeland: Will Woodland Partnership harm forest health in the long run?


Wednesday, July 05, 2017

On the 5-25-17 Recorder editorial page, Whit Sanford heaps praise on the Mohawk Trail Woodland Partnership project now under consideration for federal designation and funding by the state Legislature. It would, she says, benefit the region because it will increase both economic development and conservation of the environment, using federal and state money to launch a number of worthy projects.

But there is a dark side to the plan largely because of the commitment it makes to removing and burning biomass. Serious concerns about risks to public health and climate from burning biomass have been spelled out by others, but there is also a threat to the forest itself that has been overlooked. As one of its key provisions, the MTWP would “help landowners to improve their woodlots.”

This means the removal of low value woody material with high mineral content to be made into chips and pellets. Offers of grant money will incentivize cash-strapped towns to use the chips and pellets to heat municipal and school buildings. Thereby, a steady market demand for low value biomass is created and locked in for decades. The mineral export of forestry operations of this kind has been measured and comes to over 300 pounds of calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorous for every acre of forest that is cleared on a 35-year rotation. The ashes will be not be returned to the forest.

For some, the extraction of whole trees is the most exciting part and is clearly the economic lynchpin of the project, amounting to a bonus payoff, a “win-win” scenario. But biomass and minerals go together and when minerals are taken out of the forest in this way, the soil is depleted until weathering of the base material regenerates the lost minerals.

This process takes a very long time. Will the plan participants be wiling to wait? If the project is realized will they see young and scraggly forests, gradually returning to health, as a sign to be patient? Will they be willing to improve the quality of the forest without harvesting the biomass and minerals?

Removing woody material from the forest floor not only takes minerals but eliminates habitat and shelter for small and medium sized plants and animals. Aggressive biomass harvesting inevitably causes local extinction of sensitive species and will increase opportunities for plant diseases, exotic pests, invasive plants and disease carrying ticks.

The forest stripped of its biomass will still be a forest but it will be a poor one — poor in stature, diversity and appeal. Here’s what a team of eminent forest ecologists had to say about the depletion issue in a 2014 research article by Matthew A. Vadeboncoeur, Steven P. Hamburg, Ruth D. Yanai , Joel D. Blum in Forest Ecology and Management:

Short-rotation heavy cuts have a high risk of depleting nutrient capital due to greater total biomass removal rates and shorter recovery time, and should not be considered without additional research into mineral soil weathering rates and nutrient stocks. Clearly they saw the likes of MTWP coming: Woody biomass prices are too low for such intensive management to be economically viable, but this situation could change rapidly if policies favoring bioenergy were adopted at the state or federal level, so it is important to ensure that best-practices guidelines recognize this risk.

The hard work of stripping the forest of its biomass and minerals is done these days by machines that render trees into sawlogs and chips without ever being touched by a human, so there are not many jobs in this part of the plan. Facilities to process and burn the material will be needed but will have to compete with green energy sources that have become less expensive every year and do not emit pollution.

Despite lengthy deliberations about MTWP project provisions, concerns about soil stewardship and resource sustainability have not been laid to rest.

If large-scale burning of biomass is legitimized by this plan, a hefty profit is assured for the heavy machinery owners, energy middlemen and large forest landowners involved.

The rest of us have nothing to celebrate. This part of the plan could do serious harm to ecosystem services and human welfare over time.

Bill Copeland has been a practicing pediatrician in Greenfield since 1994. He has graduate degrees in wetland ecology, public health and medicine. He has maintained a strong interest in evolutionary biology and ecology throughout his professional life. In the past 15 years as a landowner he has immersed himself in New England forest stewardship.