North Quabbin Forestry

Serving Massachusetts Landowners Since 1984

Forest Biomass Markets Promote Great Forestry

by Mike - December 14th, 2010.
Filed under: Forest Biomass. Tagged as: .

In Massachusetts, we are blessed with 3.1 million acres of forest land that covers about 62% of the state. Forest lands provide us with many benefits: clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and as a source of forest products. Forestry is the science of managing forests for human benefit and good forestry will improve both forest and property values.

I’ve been a forester for 25 years and work as a consultant in my own business helping landowners manage their forest land. Here in Massachusetts, the most important work consulting foresters do is to prepare Forest Cutting Plans and develop Forest Management Plans for the Chapter 61 Forest Land Tax Program and/or the Forest Stewardship Program. The most important decision a landowner can make in regards to their forest land is when and how to harvest timber. The best way is to have a consulting forester who represents his or her interests develop a Forest Management Plan first and then have the forester prepare a Forest Cutting Plan which will carry out the goals of the Management Plan. In preparing a Forest Cutting Plan, the most important work for the forester is marking forest stands correctly for an improvement cutting, a commercial thinning, or a regeneration cutting. Proper thinning can double the growth rate of the higher quality trees while increasing the value of a landowners’ forest and property.
Unfortunately, good forestry has been the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of private forest land is in poor condition because of rampant liquidation cuttings over the last 1/2 century.


Liquidation cuttings are the cutting of most if not all of the very best and high value trees such as red oak, sugar maple, cherry, and good white pine while leaving the poorest and lowest value trees such as red maple, diseased beech, hemlock, and low quality white pine.  So we need to stop destructive liquidation cuttings and start improving the quality of our forests.
The best way to restore the productivity and species composition of these degraded woodlots is through biomass improvement cuttings.
For the past 5 years, I have employed mechanized timber harvesting operations that have conducted biomass improvement cuttings on my clients’ woodlots in the Quabbin region. A shear cuts the trees while grapple skidders pull the  trees to the landing area where they are processed into sawlogs, firewood, and wood chips. The firewood is sold locally while the sawlogs are loaded onto trailers and sold to various mills. The wood chips are sold to the clean burning 16 MW Pinetree power plant in Fitchburg, MA. These timber harvesting operations are examples of excellent forestry because they are: improving or restoring the productivity of woodlots some of which had been subject to past liquidation cuttings; generating jobs; providing a source of clean and renewable energy; and helping landowners improve their forest while generating some income for themselves. The beauty of a biomass improvement cutting is that the operators will take out most if not all of the low grade timber while leaving the high value trees. A conventional logging operation cannot afford to cut these low value trees because it costs the non-mechanized operator more to cut and process these trees than what he can get for them when they are sold and this often leads to destructive liquidation cuttings. So if we are to continue the massive job of improving and/or restoring the productivity and species composition of over 2 million acres of private forest land, we need more markets for biomass. And unlike the false promise of green jobs in other energy sectors, clean renewable biomass (including firewood, wood pellets, and chipwood) will always be made in America. We can generate thousands of new jobs while continuing the massive job of forest restoration. Without a viable and growing market for biomass, responsible foresters like myself will have more difficulty selling improvement cuttings leaving many people out of work and our forests in poor condition.

 Benefits of Biomass Timber Harvesting

I. Silvicultural Dividends

Restoration of Degraded Woodlots due to past destructive high-grade cuttings.

 After a high-grade cutting, many of the trees that remain are low value trees that will occupy the site and keep forest productivity low. In order to help restore the forest and grow higher value trees and improve species composition, most of these low value trees need to be cut.

However, non-biomass operators will not cut:

1. Big bully multi-forked white pine which have no value because it would cost more for the operator to process what low grade sawlogs are in these trees than what he could sell them for. These big wolf trees are left after a destructive highgrade cutting.

2. Big hardwood cull trees that are unsuitable for easy firewood processing or any pallet market. These are also left after a highgrade cutting.

Loggers who cut and sell a lot of firewood prefer the straighter  trees in the 8 – 16 inch diameter size.

3. “Dog haired” hemlock which is all hemlock under 10 inches in diameter that is too small to profitably cut for pulpwood and we have no pulpwood markets around here anyway. Those markets are too far to the north. These thick stands of hemlock hinder more desirable regeneration especially oak. In addition, many operators balk at cutting any hemlock at all since markets for hemlock sawlogs are slight. Hemlock stumpage runs a paltry $20-25/MBF if you’re lucky to find a buyer.

4. The smaller low grade hardwoods that are too small to be profitably turned into firewood. These are mostly suppressed red maple poles from 1-8 inches in diameter.

But biomass operators will take all that junk wood no problem. It’s a dream come true for the practicing forester. This forest improvement work is worth up to $2,000/acre for landowners but landowners are getting it done for a small profit!!! So this is a great deal for landowners.

The bottom line is that I cannot practice excellent silviculture without a biomass market. I could do some firewood sales and some sawlog sales that would take a bit of the junk wood out but that’s not real silviculture. Or I could practice “kinder but gentler” highgrading and pretend it’s good forestry like many foresters do but I have no interest in doing that.

II. Promote More Oak Regeneration

The dearth of oak regeneration is a major problem and unfortunately the most under-reported problem in the forestry sector:

1. In this publication by Harvard Forest – – it shows how widespread oak was in pre-colonial times. “At the time of European settlement, Massachusetts forests were dominated by oaks”.

2. Now if you look at a recent Forest Inventory Report for Massachusetts it shows oak declining –

It shows that hemlock is growing 11X as fast as it is being cut and red maple is growing 2.5X as fast as it’s being cut (because of highgrading).  However red oak has a growth to removals ratio of .08 which means it is being cut faster than it is growing (also because of highgrading) although this probably has abated with the dramatic drop in red oak stumpage prices.

The hemlock wooly adelgid (HWA) will most likely affect hemlock in the coming decades. How much? Nobody knows because cold temperatures may limit their northward spread and could keep them in check although I’m seeing more of it in Petersham for example but no mortality yet. If HWA becomes widespread and there is widespread hemlock mortality, what will be the carbon pulse from that in untreated forest stands in comparison to forest stands like mine that have had improvement cuttings?

If you look at a publication called “Trends in Massachusetts Forests:A Half-Century of Change”  (sorry not available online) it shows a dramatic change in species composition of MA forests from 1953 to 1999. On page 12 there is a graph Change in Hardwood Composition – Proportion of Hardwood Volume which shows red maple increasing from 20% to 30% while red oak decreasing from 30% to 20%. This dramatic change in species composition is mostly a result of widespread and destructive highgrading.

3. US Forest Service scientists say we should be promoting more oak, pine forests here in Massachusetts which will be more resilient and resistant to climate change. So how can we do this? Check out this excellent publication from UNH on oak regeneration:

Oak is the most important wildlife crop tree as well as having great timber values. The dearth of oak regeneration is raising alarm bells and the authors suggest it’s mostly due to an absence of natural fire but it’s also a result of widespread highgrading.

In the absence of fire, oak regeneration can be enhanced by scarifying the forest floor by mechanized timber harvesting machinery as is used in whole tree biomass harvesting. 

III. Reduce Deforestation of Private Forest Land

Development and deforestation of private forest land is a major threat to the forestry sector and to the rural Massachusetts landscape. But we can encourage more landowners to keep their land in forest by increasing forest values by increasing the growth rates of the higher quality trees.  So biomass improvement cuttings  increase forest values but overall property values are increased as well.

Biomass improvement cuttings leave much less slash behind in the woods after the timber harvesting operation is completed leaving a very attractive forest. Landowners like this far better than a conventional operation which leave most of the tops and a terrible looking mess. So when landowners like the forestry work, we can get more landowners interested in forestry and protecting their forest. I’ve had many landowners complain about unsightly slash that some loggers have left. In fact, some had to hire people at great expense to clean up the mess left behind! This is one of the main concerns for landowners. Landowners want to sell biomass. They love the way their woodlots look after a biomass improvement cutting and it provides the best market for low grade timber we have ever had.

According to this study 50% of the AGW signal is from deforestation/land use change:

So if we can stop deforestation, then we can greatly reduce any threat from manmade climate change.

IV. Promote Forests that are More Resistant to Climate Change

If the climate warms to a significant degree, the natural ranges of tree species will move north.  Massachusetts may lose sugar maple for example, while the destructive insect the hemlock wooly adelgid may kill all of our hemlocks. So it would be important to promote those trees that have wider ranges such as white pine and red oak. That way, if climate change accelerates, we can keep tree mortality to a minimum and our forests will have an easier time adapting.

V. Jobs in the Forestry Sector

With an expanding market for biomass, we can create more than 2,000 new jobs. These jobs will be in timber harvesting and processing as well as plant operations.

VI. The Greenhouse Gas Dividend

1. Managed forests can sequester more CO2 annually than unmanaged forests. This is accomplished by: utilizing materials from thinnings for energy to offset fossil fuels consumption; calculating the long term storage of carbon in durable wood products fromharvested wood; and successfully regenerating the harvested forest to meet or exceedprevious sequestration rates. Therefore, increasing the acreage under actual forest management will enhance the terrestrial CO2 storage potential for existing forests in Massachusetts.

2. Managed forests are less apt to be developed rather than unmanaged forests so Carbon continues to be sequestered in those managed forests rather than being lost when the forest is developed.

 3. By reducing the amount of hemlock, we will reduce any future CO2 “pulse” from significant hemlock mortality if the hemlock wooly adelgid continues to spread northward.

 4. The use of forest fuels in a modern boiler also eliminates the methane (CH4) emissions from incomplete oxidation following open burning, land filling, or decomposition which occurs in the absence of a higher and better use for this material. Methane is a 25 times more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. In contrast, the mining of coal and exploration for oil and gas release significant amounts of methane and other harmful pollutants into the environment. Landfill methane is now being tapped as an energy source – Pinetree Power gets about 2 MW from this source. But there are hundreds of other landfills that are not being tapped  so the methane is escaping into the atmosphere.

Here are some methane facts:

Using wood waste for fuel reduces the volume of waste that otherwise would be buried in landfills where under anaerobic conditions a lot of methane is produced.

One of the most important biological sinks for methane are forest soils so protecting forests reduces methane emissions.

Forest fires can release quite a bit of methane especially where there is incomplete combustion (smoldering fires for example). This is more of a factor out west where there are over 50 million acres of overstocked forest land due to unnatural fire suppression. Out there catastrophic fires not only destroy the forest and release methane but because they are overstocked will burn a lot of the soil away reducing their capacity as a methane sink.

In conclusion, biomass markets are the best thing to ever happen in the forestry sector. We can restore degraded woodlots, reduce rates of deforestation, create more jobs, and provide a clean renewable source of energy. It’s a win-win-win for everybody!

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