Viewpoints: We can harness green energy by managing California forests

June 07, 2010
By: William Stewart

Forest management can lead to cleaner air, safer communities and lower firefighting costs, yet its greatest value may lie in addressing climate change and what it keeps hidden underground.

Managing forests helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It lowers the threat and severity of wildfire, a significant source of avoidable emissions. It also keeps fossil fuels underground.

When forests are thinned, the harvested biomass or branches, brush and small trees can be chipped and used to produce energy. Biomass energy takes carbon that is above ground — wood chips — and keeps it above ground by burning it in power plants to produce electricity. Biomass energy is carbon neutral because no more carbon is released producing energy than would be if the vegetation were to simply decay.

Research has shown that active forest management can provide significantly greater carbon benefits than management strategies that set forests aside in reserves. While young reserved and managed forests sequester, or remove from the atmosphere and store, roughly the same amount of carbon in standing trees, actively managed forests can provide the additional benefit of offsetting fossil-fuel use by producing low-carbon energy from forest and sawmill residues.

Managing forests to reduce fuel loads provides immediate dividends. Fewer fuels means less-intense wildfire, greater firefighter safety, lesser environmental consequence and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. There's great carbon benefit right there — emissions avoided and standing carbon protected — by capturing the thinnings that might otherwise have gone up in smoke and using them to generate energy can be an added plus.

Burning fossil fuels, conversely, takes carbon that was stored safely underground and releases it to the atmosphere. Burning fossil fuels increases carbon emissions every time.

Forest management can reduce emissions from wildfire and burning fossil fuels because every megawatt generated from biomass can replace a megawatt generated from emission-spewing fossil fuels. Substituting biomass energy, a byproduct of sustainable forest management, for coal-fired energy could reduce California's carbon footprint.

But California is under-investing in forest management. California taxpayers spend more than $1 billion annually to fight wildfire and almost nothing to reduce fuels at the source. More than 400 trees per acre stand in many Sierra forests where about 70 stood before the Gold Rush, tree mortality is extremely high and dangerous fuel accumulations clutter millions of acres. Continuing down a path of increasing wildfire severity, firefighting costs and emissions has serious long-term consequences.

Forest management offers wildfire relief and a clean-energy source close to millions of Californians. Yet California's forestry infrastructure is in decline and forest management has been brought to a virtual halt. Harvest on public forestlands is down 90 percent over the last 25 years, the same time frame during which firefighting costs have skyrocketed.

The most effective way to sequester more carbon in forests is to restore resilient forests to California's landscape. Californians would benefit from forest management policies that reward performance over time and create investment opportunities that put people back to work, leverage renewable energy and reduce severe wildfire.

Unfortunately, forestry's climate benefits aren't worth much in terms of cold hard cash. Stewardship contracts that leverage lumber and biomass energy production to reduce fuels across greater areas could be extended. Carbon policy should address that. Forestry regulations that create longer-term investment windows are needed to justify the capital expenses required to achieve sustainable climate benefits. Tax policy should level the playing field for biomass energy, which receives a fraction of the incentives that wind, solar and geothermal garner.

We must revitalize our energy and forestry infrastructure with actions that encourage innovation, create family wage jobs and conserve California's forest resources.

We can't export our emissions and wildfire problems, but we can invest in a locally grown, clean-energy producing solution.

---William Stewart is co-director of the Center for Forestry at UC Berkeley's Blodgett Forest, former chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's Fire and Resource Assessment Program and holds his doctorate in forest economics and policy from UC Berkeley. This article is excerpted from the Summer 2010 edition of California Forests magazine.---