Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Burning Our Future Forests

A recent article in the Boston Globe about plans to build wood-fired power plants in Massachusetts made me worry that the voracious appetite these plants have for wood, and the scale of the machinery used to harvest the trees will make wise forest management that has traditionally been focused on high-quality hardwood logs impossible. Back in the 70's I observed one of these operations in New Hampshire. They gave lip service to setting aside quality logs for lumber or veneer, but we watched as one beautiful birch after the other went right into the chipper.

Proponents of these plants often make the claim that forests are renewable and that trees can be re-planted. Well, native New England mixed hardwood forests are never planted. They regenerate naturally after harvest, and to ensure that this regeneration happens properly, a trained forester should be involved to make sure harvesting operations are planned and conducted in a way that allows for good quantity and quality of regeneration. The kind of people that worry about delivering tons of chips to a power plant today are not the kind of people who dream about what a woodlot will look like 50 years from now.

My letter in response to the article appeared in the August 2, 2009 paper:

Beth Daley’s piece on proposed wood-burning power plants in Massachusetts ( “On wood, burning questions,” Boston Sunday Globe, July 26, 2009) prompts concern about the future of our forests. To feed the beast of a biomass-burning power plant, trees will likely be harvested by big, expensive machines on very tight production schedules. The pressure to constantly supply huge quantities of chips will prohibit much discrimination in selecting trees for harvest.

The most valuable trees in Bay State forests are high-quality hardwood sawlogs, typically red oak. Deciduous forests in New England are not planted, they arise from natural regeneration. High densities of quality sawlogs don’t just happen, they are nurtured by careful control of regeneration, species composition and stem quality by professionally-trained college-educated foresters known as silviculturists. This careful woodland culture requires thoughtful care over periods that span decades.

While the increased demand for timber that these power plants create may enhance opportunities for timber stand improvement, professional supervision of forest operations with equipment and techniques that harvest the right trees is essential. Biomass might help supply our future energy needs, but the harvest of that biomass must be done in a way that protects the character and value of our forests for generations to come.

No comments: