No Market for Small-Diameter Wood? Ship it Overseas

NAU pilot project tests exporting wood products via railway (and ship) to speed forest restoration

A pilot project at Camp Navajo has the potential to unlock a critical bottleneck in forest restoration and wildfire prevention efforts across northern Arizona by creating markets for restoration byproducts like wood chips from small-diameter trees.

The pilot project, led by Northern Arizona University, will test the logistics and efficacy of chipping and shipping wood products via railway transportation with the goal of expanding forest product markets domestically and internationally and accelerating forest restoration efforts.

“This collaboration is an opportunity to address forest health issues facing our region and create renewable sources of energy,” said NAU President Rita Cheng. “It is another example of the innovative ways our researchers are working together to solve critical issues facing our region, state and the world.”

The first phase of the project will take place at the Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) Camp Navajo Training Center over the course of eight days. It includes chipping 1,300 tons of small-diameter logs extracted from forest restoration projects like the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which has struggled to find markets for the low-value wood removed from its thinning efforts. The wood chips will then be loaded onto 60 shipping containers bound for South Korea via railway and cargo ships.


10 thoughts on “No Market for Small-Diameter Wood? Ship it Overseas”

  1. And how much carbon will be emitted to ship low quality wood chips to S. Korea?

    Not sure wood chips are “renewable” if the carbon emitted to get them to a hog fuel boiler in S. Korea is accounted for.
    I hope NAU is doing a darn good carbon analysis for this project.

    I spoke recently with a produce buyer for the New Seasons Market chain here in Portland, OR. Some stone fruit (peach,nectarine, etc) growers in Columbia River Gorge region are already planting tree varieties that they hope will be productive in 5 – 10 years as climate continues to change and their current crop trees fail.

    Given the snowpack projections in an internal USFS climate vulnerability assessment for MHNF, Columbia Gorge NSA, and Willamette NF I seriously wonder about the future viability of the orchard industry in the Hood RIver valley. Heavily dependent on snowmelt to fill irrigation reservoirs.

    We need to get very serious about climate otherwise the trump supporting loggers won’t have an industry to pass on to their kids!
    Will foresters go the way of blacksmiths when Henry Ford invented the Model T?

    • Oldwoodsman, folks in Europe are importing wood chips from the SE US with their own carbon calculations, driven by their climate targets. Not sure, but it’s an interesting question, to what extent we should question their calculations, since they are fully capable of calculating themselves, plus they may have targets that the US has not set which encourage them to do that. Pot and kettles and all that.

      • SEE:


        Conservation groups report that wetland forests are being drained, logged, burned, shipped across the Atlantic, and converted to monoculture pine plantations to create biomass.

        “Stretching across the southeastern United States, wetland forests provide ecosystem services totaling $500 billion, according to a 2018 report by environmental watchdog group Dogwood Alliance. Today, America’s natural wetland forests exist in pockets, covering just a fraction of their former range.

        However, even in their depleted state, they provide crucial services. These highly biodiverse ecosystems are some of the most carbon-rich in the country, serving as a buffer against climate change. They also benefit the health and well-being of local communities, filtering air and water and providing aesthetic and recreational value.

        But conservation organizations like Dogwood Alliance say that, despite their ecological importance, U.S. wetland forests are currently being drained, logged, burned, shipped across the Atlantic, and converted to monoculture pine plantations—all in the name of renewable energy.”

          • What’s your point? Are you seriously claiming that wetlands forests are NOT currently being drained, logged, burned, shipped across the Atlantic, and converted to monoculture pine plantations?

            • Dogwood Alliance is disingenuous in its claims. For example, a message on its web site states that:

              “If Enviva’s expansion at their Northampton mill is approved, its annual production capacity will rise to over 780,000 tons of wood pellets, requiring over 18,000 acres of forests to be cut down each year to feed that facility alone. That’s more clearcuts, more carbon in the atmosphere, more dangerous logging trucks on the road, less habitat for wildlife, and less protection from natural disasters.”

              The vast majority of the wood Enviva and other pellet producers use comes not from whole trees, but from the residues from harvesting and milling operations. It would make no economic sense to clearcut an acre of sawlogs to make pellets — lumber is far more valuable. If those residues weren’t made into pellets, they might be used to make paper — or simply burned in the woods or left to decay.

              What’s more, pellet production is a very small part of the overall forest-products market. A 2013 analysis of the US pellet market by Pete Stewart, of the consulting firm Forest2Market, looked at actual numbers and reported that “the true size of the pellet export market when compared to the forest products industry in the US looks much more like Figure 4: $200 billion for the US forest products industry and $3 billion for the export pellet industry. In other words, we’re spending a tremendous amount of money and energy debating the addition of an industry that is 1.5 percent the size of the current market.”

              • There is nothing disingenuous in these claims, the wood pellet industry in the southern US relies mainly on whole trees in the production of its wood pellets. If you would like to see some evidence, please check out our latest investigation booklet –

                The wood pellet industry likes to speak about all of the waste that it is using. This is code for trees that no one else is currently buying or that is old and crooked. Enviva has been caught time and time again in buying wood from clearcut wetland forests. These forests are vital habitat, protection from flooding and storm surge, and clean drinking water. There is nowhere near enough residue from saw mills to make the pellets that Europe and Japan are importing. Of course some of the big, straight trees from these cuts go to saw mills, but everything else is going to Enviva. They are no different than the paper industry, they love pulpwood.

                I would also remind you that those residues in the woods are vital for wildlife, rebuilding the soils that are disturbed during logging operations, preventing mass erosion and more. There is no need to vacuum a forest clean, which is harmful in the long term. Take a look at a pellet mill from above, look at the large log piles, and then ask yourself if those are trees or not.

                As for the 2013 report you cited, that was the very beginning of the pellet export industry in the US, less than 1M tons per year. Things have changed quite dramatically for the worse with massive growth in the industry since then thanks to mainly UK and Danish demand.

                And lastly, burning wood for electricity releases more CO2 than even coal, so why are we massively subsidizing an industry, calling it renewable, when it is worse for the climate? Makes zero sense.

                • Here’s a more recent study, published October 2017:

                  “Has pellet production affected Southeastern US forests?”

                  By Esther Parish, Virginia H. Dale and Keith L. Kline, Center for Bioenergy Sustainability, Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory


                  “Detailed analysis, published in the journal Forest Ecology and Management, found no evidence of detrimental effects on stored carbon or conditions of growing timberland in either of the two fuelshed areas supplying wood pellets for export to Europe. In fact, the total amount of carbon stored in each fuelshed increased after 2009. Plantation inventory volumes also increased in both fuelsheds after 2009, and natural stand volumes remained constant in the Chesapeake fuelshed and increased in the Savannah fuelshed.”


                  “Results of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s assessment of Southeastern US timberland characteristics pre- and post-pellet production showed that there have not been any reductions in carbon storage or volumes of naturally regenerating stands or plantations since wood pellet exports to Europe began in 2009.”


            • Of course, all of that is on private lands. In doing stand exams in many different kinds of forests on the Sumter NF (the ‘Piedmont’ of South Carolina), wetlands would be specifically off-limits to logging of any kind. I’m not sure of what their streambuffers are like but, there are many perennial streamcourses throughout the landscape, and they all have protections. The biodiversity is very good, except where the old cotton fields were reclaimed as loblolly pine plantations, now reaching excellent commercial sizes but, still crowded.

              Southern timber owners were promised a return on their plantation biomass but, that didn’t happen for them when their trees got crowded. What would you have them do, (at a profit, of course), with their current excess plantation biomass? To them, the biomass is a crop, and not a forest. I’m not defending them but, they have what they have, and they cannot go back in time.


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