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   Farm Bill and Energy Bill Would Spend Millions Promoting "Biomass" Logging

"Biomass" Logging Threatens National Forests:

Farm Bill and Energy Bill Would Spend Millions Promoting "Biomass" Logging

by Chad Hanson
Many Americans have long felt that Congress has treated our national forests badly, annually appropriating funds to continue logging, mining, livestock grazing, and other destructive uses. Now, Congress has taken this abuse one step further, deciding to officially treat our national forests like garbage. Provisions in both the Energy Bill and the Farm Bill would dramatically increase "biomass" logging on our national forests in the name of energy production.

Biomass production is the burning of organic waste to produce power. Historically this meant the utilization of agricultural residues like corn stalks. In a bizarre turn of events, however, members of Congress are now applying the concept to natural forests on public lands, allocating millions in federal funds to subsidize the removal of trees up to 12 inches in diameter. Emboldened by an anti-environmental Administration, pro-logging politicians have decided that our national forests are nothing more than waste to be converted into kilowatts.

Some people mistakenly believe that biomass operations on national forests focus on the removal of flammable underbrush-a misperception that the logging industry takes great pains to perpetuate. In fact, biomass logging focuses on the removal of trees between eight and twelve inches in diameter. These trees comprise the forest canopy and can be over 80 feet tall. The flammable material that governs fire behavior is generally less than three inches in diameter and has no commercial value as timber or biomass.

By reducing forest canopy cover, biomass logging increases exposure to sunlight, creating hotter, drier conditions on the ground. It also leaves behind highly flammable slash debris-needles, twigs, and branches. The result can be an increased risk of unnaturally severe wildland fires. After a few years, this risk is exacerbated by the increased growth of combustible brush caused by the extra sunlight.

To make matters worse, biomass sales are invariably part of larger timber sales that are targeted toward the removal of large mature and old growth trees. The biomass equipment, in fact, typically cannot operate until most of the mature trees have been cut down and hauled away. Thus, the biomass provisions in the Energy Bill and Farm Bill are actually encouraging increased logging of scarce old growth forests on federal lands. The Farm Bill alone would allocate fifty million dollars of taxpayer money to advance this destructive practice.

One fairly typical biomass project on the Plumas National Forest in the Sierra Nevada, for instance, would remove trees up to twelve inches in diameter for biomass production after ancient trees are logged within old growth stands and an inventoried roadless area. The timber sale, known as the Crystal Adams project, is to be executed by timber industry giant Sierra Pacific Industries, which paid only about $69,000 for timber worth millions.

It is an all too common story-one that will become far more common if the biomass logging provisions are not stricken from the Farm Bill and Energy Bill when Congress returns during the week of April 9th. Unless some courageous members of Congress take a stand against the timber industry on this issue, forest ecosystems will be devastated across millions of acres of federal land. And for what, a few extra kilowatts? Can the Bush Administration and its Congressional allies really be so afraid of energy conservation and legitimate alternatives like solar power?

Time will tell. One thing is certain, however. Until commercial logging is abolished on our national forests, timber corporations and their political apologists will concoct ever more creative subterfuges to justify continued logging. Biomass is only the most recent example.

Our public forests are national treasures. Shame on Congress and the Administration for treating them like trash.


Chad Hanson is the executive director of the John Muir Project and a national director of the Sierra Club. He lives near the Tahoe National Forest in the Sierra Nevada. He can be reached at 530-273-9290 or chadhanson@juno.com.


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This story was published on April 4, 2002.
  
APRIL 2002
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