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Forest Bioenergy and Biodiversity: Commitment to Sustainable Sourcing
Brian Kittler

The US EPA recently proposed a regulatory framework to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from domestic power plants. Critics and supporters alike recognize that this move, as precedent setting as it is for the world’s second largest emitter, will do little to curtail the damaging effects of climate change unless similar actions are taken by other nations across the globe. Recent studies suggest that the effects of climate change are appearing faster than previously expected, and that even reducing global GHG emissions 50 percent by 20501 may still not prevent some of the more dangerous impacts of climate change (IEA, 2010).

The role of forests and forest-based bioenergy in climate change mitigation strategies is an intensely debated topic. Wood bioenergy plays a significant role in the national energy strategies of many European nations, and these net biomass importers are looking to North America for their biomass supply. Additionally, pending action by the US EPA relating to the carbon accounting of bioenergy2 could result in increased domestic use of biomass for energy. Mixed into the debate over the climate change mitigation benefits of forest bioenergy is the multitude of other values that forests represent, especially the conservation of native plant and animal species. People are concerned about the effects of increased demand for wood for energy on wildlife habitat and biodiversity at both the local and landscape level.

Increased Demand for Biomass: Potential for Additional Pressures on Conservation
The majority of activity in the US bioenergy sector is developing in the Southeast, which is also the most biologically diverse region of the country. The high net primary productivity of the region results in high biodiversity and also high forest productivity, making the US South the largest producer of wood and fiber in the world. The forests of the Southeast are also among the most dynamic in the US, with forest cover increasing in areas being retired from agriculture, but being lost in other areas of rapid economic development and suburban expansion. Likewise, the presence of strong forest product markets—as represented by areas harvested and regrown—can be seen in the image below from a recent study of global forest trends (Hansen, 2013).
Forest gain and loss in the US South represented in purple vs. outright forest loss represented by areas in red and outright forest gain in areas in blue and areas of consistent forest cover in green

Demand for wood and fiber has resulted in private investments that have increased tree cover in the region over the past several decades. The USDA Forest Service estimates that the region could support even higher levels of timber production, up to a 40 percent increase over 2006–2007 levels (Wear & Greis, 2013). Where would such an increase come from? There are nearly 40 million acres of intensively managed pine plantations in the region, most of which are located in the coastal plain, with some also in the Piedmont region. Most of these plantations are on land previously deforested for agriculture, and subsequently replanted to forest by private landowners anticipating a higher return than from agriculture. The growth in new plantation acreage has leveled off in most places, but the USDA Forest Service projects that plantations could increase by as much as 27 million acres by 2050 depending on future market demand (Wear & Greis, 2013). While the future interaction of various land uses and markets is difficult to predict, such an increase in plantation acreage could be expected to come at the expense of mixed hardwood and longleaf pine forests. These forests provide habitat for species and ecological communities not typically found in single-species forest plantations. Wood biomass demand, coupled with existing demand for wood and fiber, add to the concerns over habitat protection.

The Prothonotary Warbler lives and breeds in the bottomland hardwood forests of the Southeast. They nest in cavities, like in this Cypress tree.But there are other forces at work in the South’s forests that may have a far greater impact on biodiversity and wildlife habitat. By 2060, as much as 23 million acres of forest in the South could be lost to urbanization as the region continues to grow (Wear & Greis, 2013). A relatively small proportion of the South’s forests are subject to conservation easements, or are in some other status that would protect them from development. The greatest loss is expected to occur in areas where forest product markets are weak and development pressures are strong. The economic values associated with the South’s forests may be a critical factor in keeping private lands as forest, and maintaining the conservation values provided by a mosaic of native and plantation forests, in a variety of ages and successional stages.

Sustainable Sourcing: New Territory for the Wood Bioenergy Industry
The number of wood bioenergy facilities in the Southeast continues to increase, in response to demand from both domestic and international markets. While much of their wood biomass supply still comes from plantation thinnings and wood waste, the continued expansion of this industry will begin to significantly increase overall wood demand in the region. The existing forest industry in the Southeast has devoted significant time and resources to understanding environmental concerns, and designing sustainable sourcing and supply chain certification programs to ensure that their operations remain compatible with protecting the region’s conservation values. The wood bioenergy industry now shares this responsibility.

Considering how rapidly the wood bioenergy industry is expanding through the construction of entirely new facilities, it is important to recognize that this responsibility begins before a proposed facility is even built. This involves accessing ecological data from state Natural Heritage programs and other sources to become informed about rare, threatened, and endangered species and ecological communities occurring within their projected supply areas. It also involves a genuine and ongoing dialogue with key stakeholders so that important concerns are understood, internalized, and effectively addressed. As leaders from throughout the US forest industry can attest, siting new facilities depends not just on regulatory permits, but also on earning the “social license” to operate.

Given the forest land ownership patterns in much of the South, a large wood bioenergy facility will be supplied from hundreds of privately-owned forest tracts, so a sustainable sourcing program will involve working proactively with landowners to promote the conservation of ecological resources. Private forest landowners, especially family woodland owners, consistently mention a desire to conserve and enhance wildlife The threatened Louisiana black bear relies on bottomland hardwood forests in the Southeast for survival. Fewer than 1200 are estimated to remain.habitat and biodiversity as one of their objectives in managing their forests sustainably (Butler 2008). However, a large proportion of these private landowners do not have a forest management plan to assist them in managing for these objectives, often because of the cost of consulting services needed to develop such a plan. The traditional forest products industry has played an important role in providing outreach, education, and services to forest landowners, through tree farm certification and other landowner assistance programs (Ellefson, 2004). The wood bioenergy industry must be similarly proactive in engaging forest landowners and the conservation community in a manner that reflects the complexity of conservation issues in the South.

If current trends in renewable energy development continue, wood bioenergy companies will invest billions of dollars in new plants and equipment in the South. To be economically viable, these companies will also need to invest in the sustainable management of the region’s forests. Regional biomass harvesting standards, best-management- practices guidelines, and existing certification programs will all be useful in informing this process. But it will be important for wood bioenergy companies to make their own public commitments to sustainable sourcing programs that recognize the important conservation values of the region’s forests, that specify the standards under which their facilities will and will not accept wood biomass from suppliers, and that verify compliance with these standards at every point in their supply chain.

The new EPA-proposed rules for reducing carbon emissions from power plants, and the rules for carbon accounting under the Clean Air Act expected later this year, will sharply focus the public policy debate over the role that wood bioenergy will play in US energy policy and in international markets for wood biomass for energy. Whether that role will be large or small, it will be important for wood bioenergy companies to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability through credible, verifiable programs providing public assurance that the conservation values of the region’s forests are well understood and adequately protected.

Brian Kittler is the Director of the Pinchot Institute Western Regional Office in Portland, OR.
Transatlantic Trade in Wood for Energy

1 This recommended target established by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is to reduce net global GHG emissions 50 percent by 2050 compared to 2000 levels.
2 See http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/biogenic-emissions.html.

Butler, Brett J. 2008. Family Forest Owners of the United States, 2006. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-27. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 72 p.

Ellefson, P. K. 2004. Regulation of Forestry Practices on Private Land in the United States: Assessment of State Agency Responsibilities and Program Effectiveness. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota, Department of Forest Resources, College of Natural Resources and Agricultural Experiment Station.

Hansen, M. P. 2013. High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change. Science, 342(6160), 850–853.

IEA 2010. International Energy Agency: 2010 Energy Technology Perspectives Scenarios & Strategies to 2050. Paris, France: IEA.

Wear, David N.; Greis, John G., eds. 2013. The Southern Forest Futures Project: technical report. Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS-GTR-178. Asheville, NC: USDA-Forest Service, Southern Research Station. 542 p.
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