These days, what to do about wildfires is on all our minds. But to cut or not to cut is only one question we should be asking as we search for a way to reduce the chronic devastation from wildfires.
Another question we should be asking is how can we significantly reduce the forest slash that accumulated over some 70 years of clearcutting? That dense biomass waste, nearly impassible for firefighters, acts as a wick that, when ignited by lightning, turns trees into exploding candles of flame that catapult a naturally occurring and more controllable fire into an uncontrollable conflagration.
By the 1980s, we had learned that clearcuts leave behind excessive waste and are, for the most part, detrimental to the forest ecosystem. Select cutting is less profitable but more sustainable and has a positive impact on the land, as is evident in the Ashland Watershed under the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Agreement. However, neither method of logging — clearcutting nor select cutting — is adequate to address the problem of the long-term buildup of biomass in our forests. In the past, we neglected to fund the prudent removal of excessive slash from forests because it wasn’t commercially profitable. Today, the technology to convert cellulosic forest biomass to ethanol affords us such an opportunity.
A 2005 USDA/Forest Service study of five Western states identified recoverable forest residue ranging from 576 million to 2.1 billion dry tons. Controlled burns in the off-season are the preferred alternative for managing the build-up of slash. But the U.S. Forest Service rarely, if ever, spends all the funds allocated for controlled burning because it is weather-dependent and confined to a narrow window of opportunity, even more so today in an erratic environment of drought and weather extremes caused by global warming.
Our government subsidizes the cellulosic conversion of corn to ethanol in the Midwest, yearly removing some 40 percent of the harvest and driving up prices for corn on the world food market. By contrast, conversion of forest biomass to ethanol is actually more efficient than the conversion of corn and, while it would be more expensive to remove slash from the forests than the organic matter from cornfields, the added benefits would include:
Rather than return to failed forest policies from the past, it is time to embrace new ideas that will help move society beyond our dependence on fossil fuels while correcting old management mistakes. Subsidizing the cellulosic conversion of forest biomass to ethanol would facilitate that needed shift in our energy paradigm while helping to mitigate the fires and smoke that, like the extreme results of global warming, have become our “new norm.”
John F. Owen of Ashland is retired from the U.S. Forest Service.