Climate Change, Bioenergy and Sustaining Forests of Idaho and Montana

Thoughts and comments by Ned Pence
March 3 and 4, 2010
Boise, Idaho

The following are my thoughts and comments on a recent conference sponsored by the Society of American Foresters and the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resource. Others involved were the Forest Service, the BLM, the Intermountain Forest Association, Idaho Conservation League, the Wilderness Society, Idaho Department of Lands, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the Nature Conservancy. The Snake River Chapter of SAF deserves credit for the hard work that went into the conference. A similar convention was held in Missoula last fall.

I attended the conference seeking information on the possibility of a bioenergy industry utilizing forest fuels with the possibility of sustaining forests in the inland empire. Attendance at the conference were a mix of foresters, environmentalists, and persons involved in attempts at collaboration between the federal agencies, public, forest industry and environmentalists in an attempt to find a solution to the current gridlock of forest management on federal lands.

The stated purpose was, “This conference will help people connect with global-scale issues regarding climate change, renewable energy, and carbon emissions on forests in Idaho and Montana. Discussions centered on strategies for sustaining our forests and the services people expect from them.”

Sponsors recognized the “sustainability premise” identified as “the current and future conditions of our forests determines their ability to contribute to our society’s energy security, climate change mitigation, and resilience goals.” It was recognized that the current forested conditions put the forests at risk of stand-replacing wildfire and insect and disease outbreaks. A key statement of the conference was that forest management actions must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially desirable to be sustainable. It is felt by conference organizers that forest managers can take action to meet “sustainability” only by obtaining a “social license” through collaboration. A few collaborative efforts are currently underway in Washington, Idaho, and Montana and the conference had sessions to discuss what has worked well and not so well.

It is my personnel opinion that so called man caused climate change or global warming is at best a scientific scandal that has become a religious belief that humans have the ability to destroy the planet and are in the process of doing so through our use of fossil fuels. In fact Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) has asked the Obama administration to investigate “the greatest scientific scandal of our generation”. Inhofe and the minority staff of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works believe that the scientists involved may have violated fundamental ethical principles governing taxpayer funded research and, in some cases, federal laws.

It is questionable that Senator Inhofe will have much success with agreement from the current Democrat majority in Congress and the Obama administration to conduct his requested investigation. However, my opinion on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is not important. What is important is the current terrible condition of our federal forests. If the belief in AGW can result in sustaining our forests through active forest management and also improve the economic condition of the West, that belief could prove useful.

The first four hours of the conference addressed global warming and the ecological impacts. Steven Running, ecology professor at the University of Montana, stated that there has been a shift in the climate to more warm days, fewer cold days and that precipitation is not changing. The result is earlier snow melt and a 30% reduction in August river flow and more ground absorption of heat. He emphasized the result of “leaf area” transpiration lowering the soil moisture through the evaporation/transpiration of precipitation and the need for “less leaf area. “The focus needs to be on water balance.” He displayed a map showing the bark beetle buildup in Canada and then moving south due to the stress on lodgepole pine.

Peter Kolb, the Extension Forestry Specialist at Montana State University, talked about the change in wildfire behavior and introduced the fire regimes: frequent (ponderosa pine and grasslands), mixed (grand fir Douglas fir) and infrequent (lodgepole, alpine fir, and Engelmann spruce). He stated that weather fluctuation is a result of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. In Montana 1/5 to 1/4 of the forest has been impacted by fire or beetles. He stated that the 1000 hour fuels (over three inches in diameter) are now dictating fire behavior due to warmer dryer summers and not the 1 hour to 100 hour fuels (zero to 3 inches in diameter), because the 1000 hour fuels become dry enough to burn. The result is that wildfires burn with greater intensity than predicted by fire behavior models. He stated that fires are burning in unmanaged areas and not in managed areas due to the difference in “leaf area” — emphasizing the importance of management to reduce the leaf area.

Stephen Cook, professor of forestry at the University of Idaho, talked about the effect of climate change on forest insects. He stated that bark beetles are the “right sized forester” to do the job of forest management, that foresters are not doing the job, and the beetles are doing what they are supposed to do. For insects, temperature matters and insect development depends on day length and temperature. He stated that changing climate will have impacts on trees and insects and small changes in temperature can make a significant difference. Drought decreases resin flow in trees aiding bark beetle success. I discussed the bark beetle problem now serious in lodgepole pine throughout the west with Steve. He agreed that in addition to climate the many acres of over mature lodgepole pine is encouraging the vast area of dead and dying trees in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. The problem is related to too many acres of over mature lodgepole pine at a time of mild winters and warm summers and not to too many bark beetles.

Bruce Lippke, Professor Emeritus and former director, Rural Technology Initiative, School of Forest Resources, College of the Environment, University of Washington, gave a technical presentation on the Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Northwestern Forests. He stated that there is twice as much carbon as predicted in logging slash. There is a good opportunity to use wood to offset carbon from fossil fuels. Federal management with fire does not store carbon, and it pays to grow forests rapidly and use the produced carbon. The problem is fossil fuel is too cheap and, without subsidy, biofuel cannot compete with fossil fuels. The cost of not managing forests is huge, however, and there is a need to establish certain incentives that have positive impacts.

The afternoon sessions on March 3 discussed the role of industry infrastructure to accomplish forest restoration goals. Throughout the conference “forest restoration goals” were discussed. However, no clear definition of “restoration” was given. It was apparent to me that the environmentalists and those interested in active forest management were talking past each other. Without a clear definition of “restoration,” there is a problem when it comes to active forest management. I asked a logger from Cascade, Idaho, how I could recognize a “restored” forest when I saw it. With a grin, he replied, “What could be better for the Forest Service than to have an undefined goal.” His reply explains the reluctance to define forest restoration goals. Restoration is a moving goal that means what those involved in collaboration want it to mean. It also illustrates the main problem with collaboration. (The logger is involved in the Payette collaboration. He also logged timber sales that were prepared when I was a district ranger on the Payette.)

Dennis Becker, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Forest Products at the University of Minnesota, discussed the importance of the forest products industry. He stated that the biomass industry can restore healthy forests. “Industry need healthy forests and healthy forests need industry.” It is a chicken and egg situation, “Which comes first?” He explained that we need an integrated market to make the cost of biomass profitable. Without a forest product industry biomass is not profitable. He asked the question: do we have the policy structure to take advantage of opportunities? In the West the answer is no. The forest industry that once existed is gone.

David Naccarato, the Business Development Manager for McKinstry Company, discussed wood bioenergy. He stated that biomass is our most important energy source because eventually fossil fuels will be used up. He stated that access to supply is the main problem and forest products to develop the access are required. The break even point for the cost of providing bioenergy is $85/ mega watt hour. A profit can be made at $95/megawatt hour, but any break in the supply of biomass will bankrupt the operation. The cost of operation and biomass supply is the major problem. The supply from private lands is not a problem but the supply from public lands is a problem. There has to be at least a ten year supply of biomass and a market for the energy.

The Wilderness Society also discussed the issues involved in supply. Joe Kerkvliet, Senior Resource Economist and Travis Belote, Ecologist for the Northern Rockies Region of the Wilderness Society, covered the “challenges and opportunities for biomass supply in the inland west.” I had the impression they felt they were making the policy for the Forest Service when it came to supply of biomass. The fact that environmental issues are the key to supply quickly became apparent.

“Biomass industry is only a tool for forest restoration; it is not the master!” This policy of the Wilderness Society was quickly established. The concern over bioenergy, economic factors, and forest health covered in the first hours of the conference were not a problem for the Wilderness Society. The concern shifted to social issues — wilderness, roadless, endangered species, and the “zone of agreement” — were their major concerns. Restoring Montana forests is the goal; however, wildfire is the “natural process”. The Wilderness Society believes that activities other than wildfire can restore forest health; however activities other than wildfire must work “within the zone of agreement.” They can work within the ponderosa pine forest or the “frequent fire regime”; however, the low to mid-elevation mixed conifer fire severity zone is questionable. The “zone of agreement” in the mixed severity fire zone exists only on a case by case basis. The higher elevation infrequent fire regime is outside the “zone of agreement”. Wilderness and roadless — forget it. There is about 370,000 acres within the zone of agreement in Montana. The question becomes: is there sufficient biomass within the “zone of agreement” to support a bioenergy industry or is gridlock the final answer? I was amazed when the Wilderness Society stated that lodgepole pine forests despite being dead and dying on thousands of acres in the interior west are not within the zone of agreement. It became apparent to this retired forester that the conundrum is can we work just within the zone of agreement or is gridlock of our federal forests the final answer?

The final session of the first day discussed the Inland West biomass supply “Challenges and Opportunities”. The subject was addressed by Dave Groeschl, Division Administrator of Forestry and Fire with the Idaho Department of Lands, and Jay O’Laughlin, Professor of Forestry and Policy Sciences, University of Idaho. Forest trust lands cover four percent of the State of Idaho. The policy for these lands is to maximize revenue for state schools. On these lands forest products carry the sale development and biomass is a by-product. The cost of biomass from thinning is $30/ton and the cost of biomass from logging is $10/ ton. The threats to forest restoration are wildfire, urban spread, forest issues, and forest health. The speakers felt that three biomass facilities the size of the biomass facility in Kettle Falls, Washington, are possible with the supply available from state and private lands. The possible supply of biomass from logging is 850,000 dry tons from logging slash at $10/ton and 900,000 dry tons from thinning at $30/ton. Biomass haul distances up to 50 miles are feasible, but beyond 50 miles, forget it. In Idaho 81 percent of the supply is on national forest land. The question is how much of this biomass is available from national forest lands? “We can burn the wood in a boiler or wait for wildfire.” It is a use it or lose it situation. The problem with a biomass industry is supply, economics, and sustainability. The industry simply will not exist without a sustainable economic supply and the infrastructure to use the biomass.

The second day covered the “social license” necessary for making federal forest land management a reality. It is apparent to me that biomass from the federal forests in the Inland West becomes the limiting factor for bioenergy development and sustaining the forests of Idaho and Montana. Obtaining the “social license” involves the environmental industry that is controlling management of the national forests. The morning discussion involved a panel consisting of Lloyd McGee, log procurement manager for Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. and President of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition (the only forest coalition actually working in the Inland West); Bill Higgins, Resource Manager of the Idaho Forest Group, with the Clearwater Basin Collaborative; Scott Brennan, Northern Rockies Forest Program Director, the Wilderness Society and member of the Montana Forest Restoration Group; John Robison, Public Lands Director, Idaho Conservation League and member of the Lemhi County Forest Restoration Group; and Dave Torell, Southern Idaho and Nevada Program Manager, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and member of the Payette Forest Coalition. The presentation of this panel provided a good insight into the problems of collaboration efforts, and obtaining the “social license” thought necessary for making federal forest land management a reality.

The Northeast Washington Forest Coalition has somewhat worked to keep Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. and the Bioenergy Plant at Kettle Falls operating. However, it has not been without problems. It has been necessary for industry to make many concessions to the environmental industry. Wilderness areas and roadless areas restoration does not result in wildfire fuel reduction projects. The Colville National Forest has turned over management authority to the Coalition, but the lack of funding has led to inefficiencies, and reduced project implementation. The lack of expertise in the Forest Service has required contracting and the constant turn over in forest personnel has affected projects.

While current leadership in many national forests will likely enjoy the fact that they can turn over their responsibility for management of the national forests to coalitions; there will be many problems with the collaborative process.

1. Obtaining the “social license” will require many concessions to the environmental industry. Some of these concessions will be difficult for the industry and local business to accept and some will not be what is best for the forest.

2. Some of the projects that receive a “social license” will not be implementable due to economics.

3. Some of the projects that receive a “social license” will not be implemented due to funding and a lack of expertise in the Forest Service.

4. Even when a local collaborative group has given a “social license” and the necessary NEPA work has been completed it does not preclude an outside group appeal and litigation of the project.

5. When membership in a collaborative group changes, the work toward obtaining a “social license” can be changed.

6. A collaborative group may develop a “social license” that turns out to be in violation of a state or federal law.

7. Some collaborative groups may be too large and have diverse opinions that make them unworkable.

8. The time involved in many collaborative groups as they work toward a “social license” of a complicated project will likely turn out to limit participation.

9. The fact that “restoration” is not clearly defined and group members will have different definitions will result in difficult and in some cases impossible solutions.

10. Most members of the group will not be professional foresters and will have very different concepts of ecology and the problems of forest management.

11. For a collaborative group to work the Forest Supervisor must be committed to making it work. A change in Forest Supervisors could change the commitment, and the turnover in Forest Supervisors is often frequent.

There are no doubt many other problems that collaborative groups will encounter. It will require much work and dedication for any group to function as a team interested in the health of a forest.


The conference was informative and the Snake River Chapter of SAF did an excellent job of putting it on. I wish it was possible for me to be more positive on the prospects for a bioenergy industry that can help restore forest health. Restoration of forest health on federal lands faces many problems that appear impossible to solve at least in the short run. There is a major conundrum involved — over fifty years of effective fire control has resulted in significant fuel build ups that require active forest management. There are significant problems that preclude active management of the national forests. As Jane Cottrell, the Deputy Regional Forester for Region One of the Forest Service, stated, “There is a certainty of unreliability of supply and little certainty of reliability.”

The environmental industry and most Forest Service units feel that wildfire is a solution to forest restoration. Unfortunately, with the forest fuels involved and when combined with warmer summers, and precipitation rates that create transpiration/evaporation stress resulting in fuel moisture levels that allow the 1000 hour fuels to dictate fire behavior, there will be intense wildfires. There are examples of intense wildfires that will result in the most primary ecological stage of vegetation (bare soil and rock). I doubt that even the environmental industry will be pleased with the results they seem to desire. Eventually the current gridlock of the national forests may stop, because we must have a new energy source to replace fossil fuels and economic recovery will eventually result in a public demand for forest products.

6 Mar 2010, 6:14pm
by Mike

Social license? Social license?

Looks more to me like extortion, by deep pocket DC lobbyists, the sue-happy, RICO-challenged spawn of radical monkey-wrenchers and anarchist arsonists.

Who gave a social license to outsiders, who do not live or work in the forests in question, who do not fight the fires, who do not suffer the consequences of wholesale forest incineration, whose lives and livelihoods are not dependent on those forests, who do not drink the water, who do not hunt, or fish, or recreate there?

Shall outsider holocaust-minded monkey-wrenchers decide who “collaborates”? Shall the victims, the local citizenry, be forced to “collaborate” with their sworn enemies? When did science, fact, and real outcomes get thrown out the window?

I personally refuse to collaborate with those who would destroy forests for no other reason than to exercise their extortionist political power games. The SAF would do well to throw those bums out. The eco-arsonist lobby has perpetrated so much destruction of forests it’s not funny.

Social license? Sociopath license is more like it.

7 Mar 2010, 9:49am
by Larry H.

This looks like a good chance to pin these people down on what they truly disagree with. When you strip away non-issues like clearcutting and old growth, they don’t have a whole lot else to credibly defend. Getting them to admit to wanting to “save” dead trees weakens their positions considerably. We should be mapping out all the “formerly ponderosa pine stands” that have been invaded by lodgepoles. I would estimate that there are VERY sizable acreages that would fit that definition and deserve either restoration or rehabilitation.

It appears they cannot separate the Roadless issue from the dead lodgepole issue. I wonder if there will be litigation against roadside hazard tree and powerline projects.

9 Mar 2010, 3:19pm
by Forrest Grump

Wow, Ned, thanks for the report. Loved the “zone of agreement” from the totalitarians demanding veto power. They’re gonna find themselves completely out of the zone before too long. Cheeze.



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