Talking Past Each Other on Forest Carbon: Differing Questions Asked and Alternatives Considered?

For many years, folks have been disagreeing about different aspects of forest carbon. First, there’s using different abstractions, which aren’t necessarily clearly defined, as we saw yesterday. Then there’s the temporal and spatial scale, and location and level of any site-specificity. So ideas, scope, and assumptions have been all tangled up.

I thought it might be helpful to develop a taxonomy of analyses to clarify what different studies are analyzing and how the pieces might fit together. My original idea was a diagram, and for each study, we could highlight where it fit, or not.

So here’s a first stab at a diagram. I’m hoping fellow TSW folks will help me improve it. Note that none of these framings are in themselves “scientific.”

What came to me is that sometimes when folks talk about bioenergy, they mean it as a primary purpose, while others mean it as an alternative way of disposing of waste, say from logging slash, fuel treatment projects, urban wood waste. Some mean thermal and small scale (putting up a fuels project for firewood collection) and others mean electric and large scale (building a plant).

So I came up with three boxes of environmental impacts to consider:

I. What is the primary purpose and are there other ways of fulfilling this purpose, if so what are those alternative’s carbon as well as other environmental, social and economic impacts?
Under this you would include:
a) adding or decreasing total acres of forest (alternative land uses)
b) management practices on the land (alternative silvicultural practices)
c) tree removal: live vs. dead, species/size removed, harvest method (alternative methods)

II. If you have woody material left over from a primary purpose use, what are the alternative ways of disposing of it? Say for fuel treatments, this could be burning in piles- which of course has some operational problems and risks, as well as environmental effects.

Just based on this diagram, it seems that we can talk past each other because some people are talking about primary purpose and others are talking about waste. They are definitely connected, and those connections are worthy of more examination. The questions are, for a landowner “What are we going to do with this forest?” vs. “What are we going to do with all this extra woody material?” On the other hand, when the EPA Scientific Advisory Board debated “is biomass carbon neutral?” that’s another way of looking at it, around how using it should be regulated.

Here’s an EESI 2018 piece that shows some of the complexity of which question in which this case for regulators:

However, while the determination helps clear the path towards greater use of woody biomass for energy, it remains unclear what net effect this will have on the U.S. energy mix. Solutions from the Land, an agriculture, forestry and conservation group, cheered the decision but note that there are numerous conflicts in no fewer than 14 different federal regulations pertaining to biomass utilization.

State level policies, to a large extent, decide the level of biomass utilization domestically. For example, Massachusetts’ Renewable Portfolio Standard largely forbids the use of biomass as renewable energy, while Oregon promotes it as a renewable source of energy. In California, the biomass power industry has largely shut-down due to expiring Power Purchase Agreements, despite a great need to address vast amounts of wildfire and agricultural wastes. Currently, the only other method of disposal of these materials is open burning.

The Clean Power Plan had offered hope to the biomass industry. Under the now defunct Clean Power Plan, states and the EPA had been charting a pathway for states to use biomass as a way to ratchet down emissions. However, with the administration’s reversal on the rule, along with larger market forces, such as low natural gas prices, biomass power is a less attractive energy option than even a few years ago.

But for forest land owners and managers, the question can be quite different. It might be “how best can this forest sequester and store carbon?” or “how best can this forest help with climate change given other needs and values not climate-related?” or “given future uncertainties,how should we balance s&s with the need to develop resilience? while at the same time providing important ecosystem services?”.

7 thoughts on “Talking Past Each Other on Forest Carbon: Differing Questions Asked and Alternatives Considered?”

  1. It seems to me that, the chart in particular, emphasizes “waste” and “excess” woody debris in the forests, with little recognition that snags and down timber and other woody materials contribute to the structural complexity of habitats for both plants and animals in a natural environment. All forests to not have to be managed for total, or some degree of, naturalness; but some forests should be. There is a continuum between industrial forests with trees grown like corn and wilderness that should at least be recognized.

    • That’s a good point. Private land fuels reduction material is the main source of waste where I live. It’s possible that where people live colors the way we think about it.

      In a forest people can disagree about what it considered waste and how much to remove.
      It seems to me that the “what and how much to leave” question must be location-specific. For the FS, it would be an interdisciplinary question based on wildlife, fuels and so on.

      I agree that some forests should be left alone but there aren’t many places in the US except the SE that come close to “trees being grown like corn.” So I think the diagram above is probably answering “how should I manage this land?” and one of the choices will be “leaving it alone.”

      • The intensity of industrial forestry, with “trees grown like corn”may be greatest in the SE USA, but there are many forests elsewhere with trees grown in linear rows. In particular, I have seen them in Michigan and New York, in my limited travels. (In Oregon, they are due to nurse-logs on the ground.) But, the uses of fertilizer, herbicides, control of species composition and stand age-structure, and reduction of tree-eating mammals are not uncommon elsewhere.

        • I’ve never seen fertilizer, herbicides and “reduction of tree eating mammals” around Colorado and Wyoming. I guess I have seen “control of species composition and stand age structure” if that means intervention by planting or cutting trees. Maybe rodent control right after planting?

          Some people do tend to plant trees in rows for various reasons, regardless of whether they plan additional treatments of various kinds. Are the forests you’ve observed owned by individuals or corporations?

  2. For national forests the primary purpose (as in a legal minimum) is ecological sustainability. That would seem to coral a lot of the tangents.


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