Thursday, May 12, 2011

Forest Guild Preliminary Review of New MA DOER Rules on Forest-Derived Biomass Removal

To: Colleagues dedicated to Massachusetts forestry and forest conservation


Re: A preliminary review of the new Massachusetts DOER rules on Forestry Sustainability and Restrictions on Forest-Derived Biomass Removal


From:  Bob Perschel, Forest Guild Director of Eastern Forests
Date:  May 12, 2011


Background

Massachusetts DOER has issued rules that restrict the amount of biomass eligible for renewable energy credits.  If enacted these rules would affect electrical generating facilities that currently are eligible for RECs.  However, since these rules are designed to protect forest soils we should expect the same rules would apply to community scale thermal or combined heat and power facilities should the Massachusetts Renewable Portfolio Standard be extended to thermal uses.  It is important that any forest policy encourage excellent forestry, be based on sound science, practical in application and successful in protecting ecological values.

We are in the process of determining the course of these proposed rules and the opportunity to respond.  Apparently they are now in legislative committee and there is a short window of a few weeks to offer written comments. There may also be public hearings.  The Forest Guild intends to offer comments to this process and we encourage others in the forestry sector to add their voice to this important issue. 

The information in this preliminary review is not a Forest Guild position statement at this time.  Your feedback to this preliminary review is appreciated (bob.perschel@verizon.net, 978-562-2777) and you are welcome to use this review to craft your own response.

A review of the current regulations indicates that some positive changes were made to the initial proposals that provide more flexibility to removals and incorporate soil types as a retention determinate.  However, the original method of using weight calculations at the biomass facility to assure retention of material in the woods is compromised by four fundamental flaws which will render it ineffective. These flaws are identified in a summary list.  Then each of the four points is reviewed in greater detail with suggestions for alternate approaches to protect the full suite of ecological values when harvesting biomass.

Summary

  1. The fundamental approach – to ensure appropriate amounts of downed woody material be left in the forest by tracking the amount of biomass that arrives at the biomass facility and is eligible for renewable energy credits- is an indirect and ineffective method to solving the ecological goal of soil protection. The focus needs to be on what is retained in the woods and verifications, certifications or measurements of the material retained are the appropriate metric.   This has been affirmed by other efforts such as the University of Maine’s multi year process for the State of Maine and the Forest Guild’s Biomass Retention and Harvest Guidelines for the Northeast.

  1. The current approach – focused mostly on protecting soil nutrient levels -does not address the full range of ecological values threatened by increased biomass harvests.   The focus on indirect restrictions to retain lying dead wood neglects the ecological values of standing dead and dying material essential for wildlife and biodiversity protection. 

  1. The current approach does not provide full eligibility for timber stand improvement operations that are examples of excellent forestry.  These silviculturally sound practices improve the quality and production of forest products that offset carbon intensive fossil fuel based products, maintain high levels of forest stand carbon, and provide extra income to landowners that might encourage them to keep forests as forests.

  1. The integrity of the current approach relies exclusively on the trust and honesty of field foresters to report total volume removal accurately.  Therefore, the numbers that are generated for eligible biomass and the indirect relationship to what may or may not have been retained assure no more accurate accounting then reliance on forester assurances of best management practices.  If the state is willing develop an approach based on foresters trust and honesty there are alternative approaches that do better to assure the protection of a fuller range of ecological values.


Detailed Review

  1. The current restrictions only account for material that reaches the biomass facility. Solution: Shift the measurement and accountability to where it belongs- on what is actually retained in the forest.
.  .

The approach that is being proposed relies on foresters and biomass users to verify what percentage of a total harvest is eligible and then to issue RECs for no more than that amount.  This is an indirect method that doesn’t assure the appropriate amount of material is actually left in the woods. The material not eligible for RECs can be removed and sold to other outlets that don’t need or accept RECs.  Or, potentially the tops and slash which contain much of the nutrients of the tree can be removed and other less nutrient rich material could be left on the ground or standing to meet the weight percentage requirements.

There are no instructions in the regulations to actually retain adequate material in the forest, nor is there monitoring, verification or certification that adequate material was retained.  Soils aren’t replenished because we have restricted payments to limits of what theoretically should have been removed; they are replenished when we account for what is actually retained in the forest.  National assessments done by the Forest Guild of biomass guidelines, regulations or guidelines indicate the only practical approach is to focus on what is retained rather than what is harvested, let alone what is tallied at one biomass facility.  

Experience throughout the country on water quality regulations indicates the best way of solving these kinds of challenges is to establish a set of guidelines, get a commitment to follow the guidelines and then do an appropriate amount of monitoring to ensure the objectives are being achieved.  This it the approach used in New Hampshire which has had many biomass facilities operating for 30 years.  Forestry and biomass harvesting in New Hampshire is guided by voluntary acceptance of the best management practices indicated in Good Forestry in the Granite State.


  1. The current restrictions only target soil nutrient concerns and neglect other ecological values of concern.  Solution:  Protect the full suite of ecological values and what is most threatened in the most critical time periods.

The concern over increased biomass harvesting encompasses standing dead and dying material as well as lying dead wood; effective retention guidelines would cover both categories.  The Massachusetts approach only attempts to cover the lying dead wood component in an attempt to address a potential soil nutrient problem.  But the best science indicates that on most sites if biomass removals were to cause a problem it would not be realized for a number of rotations, meaning we would have 100-500 years before there were accountable effects on forest productivity.  Since our forest soils are the foundation of forest ecosystems this problem should be taken very seriously and addressed with reasonable retention guidelines.  But, in the case of soils, we do have some time to increase our scientific understanding of the problem and take adaptive actions.  

It would seem more prudent to also focus the restrictions on the existing amounts of standing dead and dying material in the forest that are now providing wildlife and biodiversity habitat because these ecological values could be eliminated immediately with a poorly designed harvest.  The Forest Guild Retention and Harvesting Guidelines suggest target numbers of trees that should be retained on all harvests.

  1. The current restrictions do not provide for full eligibility for biomass derived from examples of excellent forestry.  Solution: Provide full eligibility for carbon friendly timber stand improvement harvests.

The current regulation provides for biomass eligibility for all sorts of un-ecological and carbon negative harvests but denies eligibility for the most ecologically sound forestry practices.  For example, all the sawtimber can be removed in a high grade or clearcut and on good sites all the tops and slash are eligible under the weight requirements. Or we can clearcut for a housing development and get RECs for the biomass. But the biomass from a timber stand improvement operation or intermediate thinning that harvests none or very little sawtimber is not fully eligible because it is almost all biomass by weight and can’t meet the percentage requirements.  This is ironic because these improvement harvests are carbon friendly.  They retain high stocking of carbon, enhance the value of the timber crop and the quantity of timber products that can offset carbon intensive products.  In addition they provide many landowners with extra income and an earlier start date on revenue streams essential to maintaining their forests as forests.    

Fortunately, if Massachusetts is going to stick to its fundamentally flawed accounting approach, this perverse roadblock for timber stand improvements can be addressed through the accounting procedures.  Since the objective is to leave adequate amounts of tops and slash this should apply to timber stand improvement operations as well as mixed sawtimber and improvement operations.  We can rectify the accounting problems by accounting for the non sawtimber trees and sawtimber sized trees independently of each other.

Sawtimber:  The total sawtimber is calculated by weight and the allowable weight of eligible biomass is factored out according to the soil specifications chart already provided.  If we wanted to leave 50% of the tops on this site then 15% of the weight in this category would be eligible. (15% by weight would be the tops we hope would be left in the woods and 70% of the weight is coming out in sawtimber form.)

Non sawtimber trees:   The remaining live trees not useable as sawtimber and destined for a biomass market are tallied separately.  If we wanted to also leave 50% of the tops of these trees on the site 85% of the weight would be eligible for RECs. (the 15% by weight not eligible would be the tops left in the woods) The combined eligible weight from the two categories would give us the total eligible weight for the harvest and the remainder would equal the equivalent of 50% of tops left in the woods.  As we noted earlier we all hope the tops and slash will be left in the woods but under the current regulation there is no assurance they won’t come out and sold into a non REC market.

The concern over the longer carbon debt and payback periods for live trees may have tainted the development of these restrictions to the point where legitimate examples of excellent forestry are only partially eligible.  However, the debt and payback periods and carbon friendliness of harvests are accounted for in the portions of the regulations that deal with efficiency and life cycle reporting requirements.  The carbon payback period should not be of concern here and since it is quite easy to account for adequate top retention of non sawtimber trees there is no reason that timber stand improvement operations should not be fully eligible for RECs.

  1. The current restrictions ultimately rely on the honesty, trust and professionalism of licensed or certified foresters.  Solution:  Acknowledge this as the foundation of the current approach and use that foundation to design an alternative approach that actually meets our ecological goals without the administrative overhead.

The current approach gathers a lot of data and produces a number of reports that tend to obscure the fact that the entire verification system hinges upon the forester reporting accurate numbers for the total harvest.  The eligible biomass totals that would receive RECs and the hoped for amount left in the woods are both calculated from the total volume. In practice the forester can report any volume and it will not be easy or feasible to verify those amounts.  Essentially it all comes back to the forester.  This is not an approach that provides the kind of iron clad accountability that seems to be objective of policy makers.  A blizzard of numbers and paperwork do not change that fact that the primary accountability over what is retained in the woods lies in the hands of the professional forester.  

If this is the case then let’s imagine other more effective ways of protecting the ecological values of the forest by relying on the professionalism of foresters.

Replacing the current approach

We can keep it simple and get the same accountability while we protect a broader and more threatened suite of ecological values. Massachusetts could produce an updated version of the Forest Guild Retention and Harvesting Guidelines tailored to the specific needs of Massachusetts REC eligibility.  The current version of the regulations makes a good start by inserting soil type retention requirements.   Complete the process and use those revised, tailored guidelines for REC eligibility.  Require that the forester certify that the harvest will follow the guidelines. Leave some room in the process for flexibility and foresters to describe any deviation or alteration from the guidelines.  This is not an iron clad guarantee that every harvest will be perfect, but it is no less of a guarantee then the currently proposed regulations.  Furthermore, it is well directed toward the actual retention goal, covers all the ecological concerns regarding biomass harvest and is a scientifically validated approach that does not overburden the system with paperwork. The State can monitor the results and perform selective sampling to gauge whether we are on the right track and make adjustments to the requirements as needed.  

Additional thoughts on fixing the current approach

Achieving more precise retention targets
The Forest Guild guidelines pointed out that retention needs vary by soil types, intensity of harvest and frequency of harvest. The MA regulations only deal with the soil types.  The variable relating to the frequency of harvest is problematic to regulate because it is mostly forward looking.   The goal should be to get foresters thinking about the frequency and plan retention accordingly.  They could report when they expect the next harvest, but this is a very soft number.

However, the intensity variable is easy to accommodate.  Some appropriate residual stocking level is identified. All harvests that leave more are considered light thinnings with plenty of residual material left standing to replenish lying woody debris and can probably be accommodated with modest retention requirements and reporting with no fear of immediate soil problems.  Any harvest moving the residual stocking level below some threshold is a heavier cut, leaves less residual standing stock and is of immediate concern.  This should trigger adequate retention requirements integrated with requirements for the soil types extant on the site.   These sites would come under closer scrutiny, reporting and monitoring.  This approach would also overcome the perverse obstacles the current regulations present for timber stand improvement operations that involve little or no sawtimber by total weight.  Adjusting retention levels to harvest intensity might also obviate the need for the change to the accounting system suggested in #3










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