Wood-For-Fuel Logging Increases CO2 and Damages Forest Health
- Oct 31, 2016 3:00 pm GMT
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The Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP) states a goal of 90% renewable energy of ALL energy by 2050, not just electrical energy, which is only 35% of all energy. The plan includes proposals to increase wood-for-fuel logging by 132% over 2014 levels. To set the stage, well-known pro-logging consultants performed various studies to determine wood-for-fuel quantities. The standard assumption in such studies is the CO2 from wood burning is not counted, because unfounded claims are made “it is renewable and carbon neutral”. Such studies usually provide cover for bureaucrats and legislators.
Most of the wood-for-fuel logging would be from in-state forests. Add to that the clear cutting for logging access roads and for installing and maintaining 500-ft-tall industrial wind turbine power plants and those forests, fragmented by hundreds of fully and partially clear-cut areas over many years, would look much differently from today, and would become even more dysfunctional as ecosystems.
The wood burning would immediately add to the atmosphere 1,616,000 ton of CO2 per year, plus prevent part of the forest, which is in “infant to prime of life” stage, from sequestering CO2, if it were left alone for decades to grow new biomass, instead of being fragmented into a “working landscape”.
Increased wood-for-fuel logging likely would cause decreased overall biomass growth and CO2 sequestration, causing the double whammy of increased CO2 stack emissions and decreased forest CO2 sequestration. Our locust-type lifestyles damage ecosystems; soon about 10 billion people will be “participating”.
Some New England History: Prior to 1700, other than natural disturbances, human disturbances were from forest clearings for small Indian villages and crop fields, and from burning forest undergrowth to enhance animal populations for hunting. This mode of operation lasted for thousands of years, until an epidemic reduced their numbers up to 90% in 1617 – 1619, a 3-year period; Plymouth Colony was built on the site of an abandoned Wampanoag village named Patuxet.
From about 1750 to 1900, 150 years, much of New England’s landscape changed from a dense, primeval forest to up to 70% pastureland. The forests were clear-cut for farmland, for home- and shipbuilding, for fuel, and as a carbon source for potash to make iron. Sheep pastures were extended into the hills, clear-cutting their tops and exposing already-fragile soils to erosion by wind and rain. Millions of tons of wood were logged for steam trains and for the industrial sector. By the end of the 1800s, millions of tons of wood were logged for paper mills, and for home- and building products for New England and beyond.
NOTE: Deforestation was not limited to New England. Prior to the 1700s, Indiana had 20 million acres of forests. By the early 1900s, over 90 percent, or 18 million acres, were clear-cut for crops and livestock. By 1967, forests covered over 4.1 million acres; today 4.4 million acres.
Environmental Impact: Clear cutting of forests caused environmental changes that reduced animal populations by the mid-1800s. Catamounts and wolves disappeared as their natural habitats were destroyed. Deer herds were so depleted hunting them was illegal from 1865 to 1897. Flooding occurred more often and was more severe. Vermont’s already marginal soils were washed away.
Soil erosion caused the silting of rivers, which damaged river ecosystems and buried fish spawning areas, leading to a permanent collapse of fish populations; annual restocking by fish hatcheries is required. At present, fish populations are just a pale copy of what they were in the 1700s and earlier. Accounts by Indians and settlers mention the rivers of New England were teeming with fish.
George Perkins Marsh of Woodstock, an early voice for conservation of the land, began his warnings in the 1840s. In his book Man and Nature (1864) Marsh cautioned against uncontrolled deforestation and recommended careful management of forests, soils, and the natural watersheds. For the most part Marsh’s warnings went unheeded, as most people did not share his philosophy. Vermonters continued to destroy the land, consuming its natural resources and moving to other states when their farmland became unproductive. Starting about the 1960s, further soil and tree damage occurred, due to acid rain from Midwest coal power plants and the annual shock of acid-laden snow melt.
The combined destruction, due to agriculture, irresponsible logging, urban sprawl, transportation- and power transmission corridors, and other human activity, has eliminated nearly all of the old-growth forests and fragmented much of the remaining forests. The negative impact upon wildlife and plant life has been tremendous. Traditional habitats for breeding, nesting, and feeding have been irreversibly altered or destroyed for many species of animals, as forests have been fragmented into small, isolated woodlots across much of Vermont.
Acid Rain: Midwest coal plants, burning high-sulfur coal, emitted much sulfur dioxide, SO2, in their flue gases. This resulted in acid-laden clouds, with a pH of about 3 – 4; pH is a standard measure of acidity. The pH of water is about 7, meaning its acidity is 1,000 – 10,000 times weaker than acid rain.
Acid rain has a multi-faceted, adverse impact on ecosystems. Acid rain causes depletion of calcium and magnesium, important plant nutrients, from soils in the Northeast. It activates a form of aluminum that harms forest ecosystems and aquatic organisms in lakes. It damages the animal and plant life that enhance the quality of soil. It damages the roots of trees that absorb nutrients. The loss of nutrients from soil and foliage stresses and weakens trees (with already-damaged roots), making them more susceptible to climate and insect stress.
Even though today’s rain and snow are much less acidic than in the 70s and 80s, due to SO2-scrubbing systems added to Midwest coal plants, the soil and forest damage has been done. The soil and forests at higher elevations, already-stressed because of cold, winds and ice, often shrouded in low-pH, acid-laden fog (similar to lemon juice), continue to be damaged. It would take many decades for the soil and forests, and their ecosystems to become as healthy as in earlier times.
Calcium Addition Experiment: In 1999, calcium was applied to a 30-acre test site at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, a 7,800-acre living laboratory in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Calcium concentrations in forest soils at the site had been depleted due to prolonged exposure to acid rain. The goal of the experiment was to test if restoring calcium to these soils would result in improved forest growth.
According to Likens, a co-author of the study: “For nearly ten years, it looked like our predictions were correct. The calcium was largely retained and the forest was growing. Then, in 2010, we noticed streams draining the treated site had elevated nitrogen levels. By 2013, yearly inorganic nitrogen losses were thirty times what we expected, an increase we had seen only after forest clear-cutting experiments.”
“Long-term, comprehensive research is essential to advancing scientific understanding. Major, unanticipated impacts of an acid rain mitigation experiment took a decade to emerge. Our ability to track this study over time has shed new insight into watershed dynamics. In the end, preventing environmental degradation is easier than fixing the damages done.”
It appears, the outcome regarding elevated nitrogen losses, similar to clear-cutting, was unexpected and undesirable. The below ground biomass begins to die-off and give up minerals, including nitrogen, after clear-cutting. It is likely, many years of additional study and experimentation would be required to develop effective soil remediation procedures, which, hopefully, would ultimately lead to healthier trees.
Forest Regrowth: Many of the forests in Vermont have partially regrown, but they are not the same. Beech trees were more than one third of all trees in Vermont. Today, for every twenty trees, one is a beech tree. Stands of red spruce and sugar maple, both needing much calcium, are weakening, and being replaced by acid-loving white pines.
The result of damaged forest soil is much of the regrowth, typically up to 50% of a forest stand, has trees that have one or more defects, are weak and sickly, look unhealthy and stressed, and die prematurely, i.e., no more 200-year-old trees. Various parasites, domestic and foreign, attack and harm such trees. Wood-for-fuel advocates deem such low-value trees to be suitable for burning, but more logging often just worsens the problem.
The regrown forests are just a pale copy of what they were in the 1700s and earlier, according to before and after accounts and surveys. Photographs of logs rafting down rivers in the 1800s show an abundance of mostly 200-year-old trees that likely started growing in the 1600s.
Forest soil depletion is similar to Cape Cod no longer having sufficient fish to maintain populations, due to habitat destruction and overfishing; continued fishing would make matters worse. Fish, unlike trees, can move to more suitable areas, such as the Maine coast.
Forest Soil Remediation: One cannot grow good quality crops on poor soils, as is known by any gardener, farmer and forester. Hence, due to past damage, forest soil remediation should be a priority, if one wants to grow healthier trees. In all cases, as a minimum, forest management should be on a nutrition-neutral basis, as is the practice for planted/managed forests in the US southeast. See below note.
An additional measure would be logging defective/unhealthy trees, chipping them, and spreading the chips on the forest floor to speed their decay; white pines should be included to prevent them from encroaching on other trees. It would accelerate soil remediation and improve ecosystems. Such soil remediation would have to be subsidized by government.
If soil remediation were not performed, 50% defective and unhealthy trees likely would remain a permanent feature of forests in Vermont. Due to political, and “saving-the-world” pressures, burning those trees is promoted as a CO2-reduction measure, because they would not be suitable for high-value purposes, i.e., lumber, veneer, plywood, furniture, etc.
However, more logging usually makes the problem worse, and leaving the forest alone is the best solution.
“All evidence suggests that harvesting exerts greater impacts on ecosystem processes than leaving disturbed or stressed forests intact. A conservative alternative hypothesis for the long-term management of watershed lands might be proposed: the elimination of harvesting and its associated impacts (e.g., soil compaction, road development and improvement) will yield forest and landscape conditions that maintain and improve water quality in the face of ongoing disturbances and stresses.”
“Although intuitive support exists for the development of “protection forests” through silvi-cultural approaches to increase the resistance and resilience of forests to pests, pathogens, and natural disturbances, empirical data to support the approach are lacking. Not only is there sparse evidence that such approaches achieve their goals of increasing resistance and resilience, little evidence suggests that natural disturbances yield negative functional consequences. Therefore, current management regimes aiming to increase long-term forest health and water quality are ongoing “experiments” lacking controls. In many situations good evidence from true experiments and “natural experiments” suggests that the best management approach is to do nothing.”
~Dr. Foster, Dr. Orwig, Harvard Forest
Wood For Fuel Advocacy: In recent years, wood made into wood chips and pellets has provided some forest owners sufficient income to more actively manage their forests, i.e., remove low-value trees to enable high-value trees to grow.
Wood-for-fuel advocates claim:
- Vermont net forest biomass growth is about 2 cord/acre/y, i.e., there is plenty of wood for fuel. However, if 50% of a forest stand, i.e., defective and unhealthy trees, were logged, that likely would be much more than 2 cord/acre/y. It is reassuring to know, such logging would not be classified as clear cutting, because about 50% of a stand would remain, and that additional logging would not occur, unless there are pressing reasons, such as trees damaged by insects and by ice storms and windstorms.
- Vermont current logging is about 1/3 of forest growth (2 x 1/3 = 2/3 cord/acre/y), i.e., huge volumes of wood are accumulating, ready to be used for fuel. However, Vermont is actually logging at about 2/3 of net forest growth (2/3 x 2 = 4/3 cord/acre/y), i.e., about at the “sustainable” limit of 1/2 cord/acre/y, if taking into account public lands, private lands not available for logging, and inaccessible areas, such as steep slopes and mountaintops. See page 20.
- Vermont regrowth is sufficient for additional logging of low-value trees to improve the rest of the stand. It is reassuring to be told, such logging would reduce heating costs, maintain logging jobs, circulate money in Vermont (if not spent on imports), etc.
- Vermont forest owners should not be deprived of opportunities to realize a return on their investment. A typical forest owner logs trees for firewood, and for chipping by a chipping contractor, who uses an equipment combo consisting of an 18-wheeler and a huge chipper to chip whole trees, some of them about 1.5 ft in diameter.
The rationale for logging is a tree with a major defect could not be used for furniture, lumber, etc.; a small defective tree would grow to become a large defective tree. It might take sunlight that could support a better tree.
However, the removal of biomass from a forest a.k.a., “nutrient transport”, would further weaken already-poor soils and ecosystems. The recommended “sustainable” logging standard is 1/2 cord/acre/y or less.
Forestry people, as all people, are looking out for Number One. Forest owners want a return on investment. Loggers want to log to make a living. Cod fishermen want to fish to make a living. Politicians want to do “constituent service” to get campaign contributions and be re-elected.
NOTE: The US southeast has many large flat areas that are highly suitable for fast growing pine trees, such as in Georgia. Vermont has very few such areas. The forest soils are fertilized to replace nutrients, just as with farm acreage. Healthy seedlings, grown in nurseries, are planted in grid patterns and managed for many years. After about 35 years, the crop-rotation period, healthy trees are logged. They are used for various purposes, including wood pellets. About 6 million ton of wood pellets will be exported to EU power plants in 2016. Brussels has declared burning biomass is “CO2 neutral”.
Burning Wood is Not Renewable: A forest regenerates from the logging activity (which also disturbs the forest floor, releasing CO2), by absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere, storing C as hydrocarbons in new biomass growth above and below ground and releasing O2. In managed forests, the rotation period from seedling planting to logging is up to 60 years in New England, up to 40 years in the US southeast, such as in Georgia. See below URLs.
Proponents simply declare, “burning wood is CO2-neutral”, which creates political “feel-good”, because it conjures up the APPEARANCE of meeting CO2 targets, etc. However, it perpetuates uninformed thinking by lay people and others. Proponents purposely forget to add: “over a period of up to 60 years in New England, up to about 40 years in the US southeast.”
The slogan “burning wood is CO2-neutral” is not close to true. Even if the logging were “sustainable”, i.e., 0.5 cord/acre/y or less, or no more than biomass growth of about 2 cord/acre/y, there still would be a large carbon impact, due to lost carbon sequestration from the biomass growth being burned, instead of that biomass growth sequestering atmospheric CO2.
As a minimum, all of the logged land area should be allowed to regenerate biomass to its former state. In practice, over the years, much of the forested lands are more likely developed “for higher-value uses” after clear-cutting.
A further burden would be the immediate release of CO2 from wood burning plants. In New England, adding wood chip plants, which typically get much of their wood from clear-cutting, would be an up to 60-year “saving the world” solution.
The Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP): The CEP aims to have 90% RE of ALL energy by 2050, not just electrical energy, which is only 35% of all energy. The plan includes proposals for increased logging of wood-for-fuel. See table.
|Combined heat power, CHP||400,000|
The wood-for-fuel logging increase would be 1,600,000/1,216,167 (in 2014) = 132%, mostly from in-state forests. Add to that the clearing for logging access roads and for installing and maintaining 500-ft-tall industrial wind turbine power plants and those forests, fragmented by hundreds of fully and partially clear-cut areas over many years, would look much differently from today, and would become even more dysfunctional as ecosystems.
The wood-for-fuel would immediately add to the atmosphere 1,616,000 ton of CO2/y, due to burning, plus prevent the forest, which is in “infant to prime of life” stage, from absorbing CO2, if it were left alone to grow new biomass, instead of being developed as a “working landscape” or worse.
Increased logging likely would cause decreased overall growth and CO2 sequestration, causing the double whammy of increased CO2 stack emissions and decreased forest CO2 sequestration. Our locust-type lifestyles damage ecosystems; soon about 10 billion people will be “participating”.
Wood for Fuel For CEP 2050 Goal: If Vermont’s loggable area were sustainably harvested, the potential annual harvest would be 3,051,562 acre x 1.25 ton/acre/y = 3,814,453 ton/y. The harvest was 1,203,241 ton of high-value wood and 1,216,167 ton of low-value wood (for burning), for a total of 2,419,408 ton, in 2014, about 63% of potential. The potential wood-for-fuel would be 1,216,167/0.63 = 1,917,416 ton/y, for a 701,249 ton/y increase over 2014.
However, the CEP goal is a wood-for fuel increase of 1,600,000 ton/y by 2050, i.e., an additional 898,751 ton/y would need to be from out-of-state areas, if sustainable harvesting were to be observed in Vermont. See below tables.
NOTE: The CO2 of biomass burning is not counted by Vermont, because “it is renewable and CO2-neutral”.
|Forest, 72% of total||4,414,884|
|Not managed, 28%||1,239,465|
Logging increase and CO2 increase due to implementing CEP by 2050.
|All logging in 2014||2,419,408||371,691|
|CEP logging increase||701,249||898,751|
|All logging in 2050||3,120,657||1,270,442|
|Fuel only in 2014||1,216,167||371,691||1,603,737|
|CEP fuel increase||701,249||898,751||1,616,000|
|Fuel only by 2050||1,917,416||1,270,442||3,219,737|
Mt = metric ton = 2204.62 lb.
Ton = short ton = 2000 lb.
Out-of-state logging of 371,691 ton/y. See URL
Vermont total area.
Logging area deemed accessible and ecologically appropriate. See page 20 and 21 of URL
Total logging and fuel logging in 2014.
Photo Credit: Neil Turner via Flickr