Healthy Forests Provide Communities with Significant Environmental Benefits

On October 30, 2015, the Governor moved forward with plans to improve forest health and reduce the risk to rural communities by issuing his Emergency Declaration to address the unprecedented issue of tree mortality in California.  He cited more than 22 million trees that have already died due to the drought and we know there are millions more in severe stress, not to mention those that have died from wildfire.  Heading into our fourth year of extreme drought, our forests are filled with dry, dead trees that will promise to fuel future wildfires if not removed.

We agree with the Governor that the situation in our forests is dire and something must be done to remove all the excess fuel.

Thankfully, in California, the same problem of drought induced tree die-off presents us with an opportunity to improve the resiliency of our forests, protect rural communities from wildfire, and also provide co-benefits in the form of renewable energy.

There are three options to remove forest debris.  One, is the option of burning the piles of slash in the forest.  Two, is leaving it in the woods to decompose or fuel a wildfire – either way releasing greenhouse gases.  While the third, more beneficial option, includes utilizing the forest slash as bioenergy ‑‑ a process whereby the trees, limbs and woody debris is turned into wood chips and used to create steam that drives a turbine for renewable energy.  This biomass process provides us with the opportunity to make our communities safer, while also providing clean, renewable power for local homes.

According to a recent study conducted by the UC Berkeley Center for Forestry, this method actually reduces criteria and greenhouse gas pollutants from being released into the air by 98 percent when compared with burning the piles in the open.

A new report, California Forest Products Industry and Timber Harvest 2012, shows some significant gains in the bioenergy sector.  In 2012, 26 bioenergy facilities used some type of wood fiber in its production of renewable energy ‑‑ producing 551 megawatts of electricity.  This is a significant increase from 66 megawatts in 2006.  To put that into perspective, that’s enough electricity to power 3.4 million homes for 1-2 months on clean power.

However, the UC Berkeley study also discusses current industry challenges which include the cost of production and transport being almost double the going market rate.  With more than 11 facilities at risk of shutting down and the uncertainty of renewing those contracts, it puts our best option of removal at risk.

At a time when there is broad consensus that we desperately need to remove and dispose of hazardous forest debris, we simply cannot afford to let those facilities close.  And, it’s incumbent upon the Governor to make it an economical option.

We have the opportunity to drive demand for the biomass energy sector as they work to level the playing field with other forms of renewable energy.  The time is right.  We have the means to remove millions of dying trees.  They have the capacity.  And the Governor is calling for action – action to meet his aggressive renewable energy goals and action to increase biomass capacity while making our communities safer from wildfire.

We’ve always maintained that California forests provide immense opportunities, and this is just one that can provide significant environmental co-benefits.