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Winslow Homer, “The Adirondacks,” 1892. Courtesy of Harvard University Art Museums

Winslow Homer, “The Adirondacks,” 1892. Courtesy of Harvard University Art Museums

Monetizing the Forest

By Anthony F. Hall

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Here on Lake George, we have little direct or immediate interest in forestry as an industry. It’s been generations since the mountainsides were clear cut and the logs floated to saw mills. (And centuries have passed since the straightest white pines were striped and identified as the property of the His Majesty’s navy)

We do, however, have an interest in slowing climate change. So I was glad that I could attend a conference sponsored by the Adirondack Research Consortium on the role that forests can play in that process. Titled “Forest Health and Carbon Storage,” it was held at the Queensbury Hotel on October 12.

Forests inhale heat-trapping carbon dioxide. When forests sequester carbon rather than emitting it into the atmosphere, the flow of gases that cause global warming is reduced. If our only interest is in slowing climate change, the highest and best use of our forests is to leave them intact, said Dr. Charles D Canham, a Forest Ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem studies.

Incentives exist to prevent forests from being logged or cleared for development, Troy Weldy of the Nature Conservancy explained. He discussed the exchanges that are being created that will enable more private forest owners to acquire and bank carbon credits, selling them later to governments or companies that have uses for them.

Forests can also be a source of alternative energy, but the environmental benefits of using wood products for that purpose are far less obvious.

To be sure, some at the conference argued that burning wood to make electricity is relatively benign, since the carbon that is released when energy is made from a forest is recaptured when a new forest rises in its place.

Robert Malmsheimer, a professor at the State College of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, argued that while the benefits of biomass energy may be delayed, the benefits are nevertheless substantial over the course of time.

“The debate is about the timing of benefits, not whether these benefits exist,” he said.

I happened to be scrolling through the Lake George Mirror’s Twitter feed during the lunch break when I came upon a tweet from Bill McKibben, noting that powering an automobile with corn ethanol generates more carbon pollution than using gasoline.

Is wood an equally inefficient source of energy? I tweeted idly. Almost immediately, McKibben responded, “’fraid so,” and referred us to an article that he had written in September for the on-line journal Grist titled “Burning trees for electricity is a bad idea.”

While acknowledging that planting a new tree will recapture at least some of the carbon released when the tree is burned, McKibben wrote, “a slowly growing new tree won’t suck it all back up until after we’ve broken the back of the climate.”

Whether burning trees for electricity is a bad or a good idea is a question that Congress is now debating

A version of the Energy Policy Modernization Act expected to reach the President’s desk before the end of the year asserts that wood and other organic matter from a forest is “a renewable energy source.”

Although some experts say that burning forest biomass will add at least 620 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, this new version of the bill defines wood-generated electricity as a “zero-carbon fuel” or as “carbon neutral.”

That means that any emissions produced by wood will be permitted under a plan that is, of course, meant to slow climate change by limiting the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere.

No doubt there are many representatives of the forest products industry, economic development organizations and state and local governments who hope the federal government agrees to treat wood-generated power as carbon neutral. As more biomass generators are built, new markets for wood products are created. Which, of course, means retaining jobs in places like the North Country. But if critics like Bill McKibben are to be believed, any economic development benefits will be inconsequential when compared with the long-term harm to the planet.

“If the wood products industry can force the EPA to ignore the carbon pollution from wood-burning power plants, the business will really boom. (But) one result will be the deforestation of many of the nation’s wooded regions. Another will be the elevation of our planet’s temperature,” writes McKibben.

Banking and selling carbon credits, it seems, would be a much better way to monetize our forests.

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