Let the Chips Fall Where They May

Jack Savage | October 30, 2010

There’s a great debate going on these days, in and out of the woods, over biomass. When it comes to the forest, biomass typically refers to wood harvested in the form of chips that are then burned, either to generate renewable electricity, or heat.

The debate itself has spread like the Asian Long-horned beetle, and to some is just as scary. As with climate change, soldiers of various agendas have taken science up as a weapon and entered into the thunderdome of public opinion, determined to bludgeon their way to victory.

Depending on who or what you read, harvesting and burning woody biomass is either good for us and our forests, or the worst thing imaginable. It is either carbon neutral or not, an efficient use of a renewable resource or not, and worthy of either promoting through government incentives or bringing to a complete halt through government regulation.

In the end, the disagreement is over one big question: how much should we harvest our forests?

For the record, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests has since its founding promoted the wise use of the forest resource. This means that we support sustainable harvesting, advocate against liquidation cutting for short-term financial gain, and believe that proper forest management—including harvesting—allows landowners to keep forests as forests rather than losing them forever to development.

I am one such landowner. I enjoy the privilege of owning and managing a modest piece of New Hampshire woods in northern Strafford County. The land has been managed--for better or worse--for more than 200 years. I am only the current steward, and I am not likely to live to see the benefit of much of what I might do.

Given the configuration of stone walls and what I’ve come to know about the farm’s history, much of the land was cleared in the first half of the 19th century—for agriculture and for firewood to fuel the four fireplaces, bread oven and hot water cauldron in the center chimney cape and for agriculture. Tax records indicate that the Benjamin R. Colbath farm, as it was known in the mid-1800s, participated in the sheep boom that left as little as 24 percent of New Hampshire forested. (Today we are 82 percent forested.)

But once Ephraim and Elizabeth Colbath were buried on the crest of a hill behind the barn in the late 1800s, the trees returned to fill the fields.

In the 1960s, a new landowner cleared the land once again, subdividing off parts of it for residential development. That it was heavily cut is less important than the fact that it was rather indiscriminately cut. All the marketable timber was removed, leaving behind little except those trees that had no commercial value. What was missing from that particular harvest was any sense of the future. What would, or could, grow back?

Forty years later, trees dominate the land once again. There’s red oak and pine, hemlock and red maple. And lots of beech…most of it suffering from beech bark disease, which makes the wood of little value at the sawmill. It’s a woodlot that only a forester with long-term vision would love. Given its location, a developer might love it more.

The prescription for this woodlot is some significant thinning, leaving behind healthy seed trees of various species. At some point in the future, probably after the consulting forester and I have gone to the great Tree Farm in the sky (or in more likely in my case, to Dante’s woodstove), we may have left behind a healthier, more valuable forest. Or not, depending on unknowns like climate change, new forest pests, or other unpredictable events involving wind, fire or water.

So how do I thin the woods? Its large enough that my trusty Husqvarna chainsaw and I are not going to make a dent…at least as long as I have to take the daily trek off the farm to earn a paycheck.

What I need is a market for the wood that allows the consulting forester to hire a logger. And while the commercial value of wood chips is very low (kind of like the value of zucchini in mid-August), it can be just enough to allow that timberstand improvement to take place. It allows me to act in the long-term interest of the woodlot. And it may allow the landowner who follows me to keep this forest as a forest--by sustainably harvesting higher value timber rather than resorting to subdivision. That’s wise use.

 Jack Savage is editor of Forest Notes magazine published by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire  Forests where he serves as VP for Communications and Outreach. He can be contacted at jsavage@forestsociety.org.