At first glance the latest biomass study out of Oregon State University seemed like bad news with a capital B. It certainly could pose yet another obstacle for champions of woody biomass removal, the latest and perhaps best hope to address the problems of our rural forest communities.
Those champions, however, have become accustomed to battling misperception; this may be just one more front in that fight.
In the study, published Sunday in “Nature Climate Change,” researchers from OSU and other institutions examined an array of forests across the West, from the wet coastal tracts to the stands of the dry side. They summed up that managing the forests to produce biomass fuel would increase carbon dioxide emissions by at least 14 percent – more than what would result from current forest practices or simply burning it in place.
“Most people assume that wood bioenergy will be carbon-neutral, because the forest regrows and there’s also the chance of protecting forests from carbon emissions due to wildfire,” said Tara Hudiburg, one of the researchers.
While hailed as the most comprehensive study to date on the topic, the report immediately drew some detractors, and they wasted no time wading into the fray. One OSU professor offered a dissenting view that the study ignores the long-term benefits of biomass management. And industry leaders noted the value of active management in preventing catastrophic wildfires, which have devastating impacts on wildlife, water quality and forest health.
Even one of researchers conceded that their results may not apply to Eastern Oregon’s dryside forests, where buggy and diseased stands no longer sequester carbons effectively. The researchers said in such cases, forest thinning could result in lower emissions under the right conditions.
But the biggest problem with the study is that it views the issue in terms of one overriding goal: carbon reduction. The world isn’t that simple. Biomass proponents are working to solve multiple goals – clearing the overstocked stands, reducing the local reliance on fossil fuels, producing an efficient and renewable fuel source, providing jobs and stabilizing struggling rural economies. They see a range of benefits evolving over time.
As Tim Raphael, an aide to Gov. John Kitzhaber, told The Oregonian, “That’s really the filter that we’ve looked at it through, and I’m not sure that was the filter of the study.”
The Mail Tribune in Medford underscored that point in an editorial on Tuesday, noting that “carbon reduction is not the only goal of removing biomass from forests. In fact, it may be the least important factor from a public policy standpoint.”
In Grant County, an array of community, business and forestry leaders have come together on the issue of biomass. They know the “current forest practices” preferred by the researchers will leave our forests at continuing risk. In response, they are fostering a local biomass industry they believe will secure a better future for both the forests and the communities – all while helping us curb our appetite for fossil fuels.
That’s the context that Hudiburg and her colleagues don’t address. From our perspective here in the heart of the eastside forests, it’s the context that counts.