Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Joe Zorzin Sounds off on Forestry and the Need for Biomass as a Forest Management Tool

Joe Zorzin Sounds off on Forestry and the Need for Biomass as a Forest Management Tool in Massachusetts

Joe, up a tree and thinking...!
The state has a goal of getting 500,000 acres of private land under forest management. I discovered this at the last Forest Forum on held at the Trustees of the Reservation’s Doyle Center in Leominster May 11, 2011.  The event was put on by Bob O'Connor, Director of Forest and Land Policy, EOEEA - the agenda included, "500,000 acre goal for enrollment in Chapter 61 and Forest Stewardship Program and Working Forest Initiative."

I'm not sure what the current figure is- I think it's just over 400,000 acres.

Getting more forest land under forest management is of course also part of Harvard Forest's Wildlands and Woodlands vision.

The problem is- how can you manage forests successfully if you have no market for much of the wood?

Joe Zorzin, forester, at home
The unfortunate reality is that much of the forest consists of worthless or almost worthless trees. Of course if that low value wood is hardwood, it may be possible to find a firewood operator who may be interested in harvesting those trees, but he/she won't take any softwood and will seldom take the smaller trees or some species like poplar and seldom the large, rough cull hardwoods and if the lot is way up on a mountain, or behind a swamp or across a brook, where he'll have to install a temporary bridge- forget it, he won't be interested.

Such stands that a firewood operator may not want have often been thinned by the "timber stand improvement" method - chainsaw girdling the undesirable trees to enhance growing conditions for the desired trees. The downside to this is that you leave hundreds if not thousands of dead trees in the forest. Now, having some dead trees is fine for the woodpeckers and other wildlife, but when it's a large number, it doesn't look good, the dead trees will fall sooner or later and rot, emitting carbon dioxide, and most loggers hate to see girdled trees because they are dangerous if still standing during the next commercial harvest because they will definitely come down if nudged by a falling, cut tree- extremely dangerous! One of my clients was walking in his forest, where a stand had been so treated, on a windy day and one such tree broke and hit him on the head, knocking him out. Lucky it was a very small tree and didn't kill him.

Another downside to girdling trees is that no landowner is going to be willing to pay for it without a subsidy. More years than not, subsidies are not available, so this valuable work seldom gets done. Many stands on Chapter 61/Stewardship acreage have not been thinned that should be simply because we can't do it, either no market or no subsidies and even when subsidies are available some foresters hesitate to do this work because they can't make a decent income doing it or because it's dangerous.

Mike Leonard's Forest Improvement Biomass Cutting
This is why when I saw Mike Leonard's biomass projects I was so impressed. I've been struggling to deal with this problem of low value stands for over 30 years- and meanwhile, more such low value stands have been created because forests are often high graded with state approval- there is less of this than in the past, but it still continues, though somewhat less egregiously.

But now that we have this tremendous tool to do excellent forestry- we have this problem of extreme resistance to the biomass industry. I believe it is with good intentions but this movement has demonized biomass making it out to be worse than it is. It's not perfect but neither is the rest of our civilization, but those who hate biomass make it seem as if this is the biggest environmental problem ever to face the human race- while they personally have a huge carbon footprint in their lifestyle as few Americans, even environmentalists, want to lose their comforts.

Check out:
Everything in our modern world has tradeoffs including biomass. If done as well as possible, it will result in some carbon emissions for a period of time before the carbon debt is paid off and it enters the carbon dividend period. But the benefits are tremendous. We can thin the forests as never before, faster and safer and cheaper than by girdling and probably with little more carbon emissions than all those dead trees will emit (often 100 or more per acre!). Stands that are thinned this way will put most of the growth on the best trees which have the best potential to produce economic value at the fast rate- and this is exactly what foresters are supposed to be doing on managed forests. There of course many other benefits to this work- by enhancing forestry, it helps the owner to avoid selling to a developer, it's home grown energy- not from nations giving money to terrorists, and with a huge multiplier effect, the benefits to the state's economy for such excellent forestry is substantial.

I have included some photos taken of a stand where I girdled the trees.

The first really shows what thinning a forest is all about: that beautiful red oak was growing next to 2 diseased worthless beech. All too often in a case like this- it's the oak that gets cut and the beech that gets left- a classic high grading. Not only is such high grading economically detrimental to the owner, it's also detrimental to all society because of the greatly reduced future value of the forest and thus the loss to the future economy of the region. But by girdling the trees, it cost the owner something, it costs the government something for subsides, it's dangerous to do the work, and the trees can break and hurt somebody. At least by doing this girdling, the nice oak will grow faster for 10-20 years and since it's already veneer quality, the enhanced value will be tremendous.

But a minor disadvantage to this type of thinning is that the benefit to the growth of the remaining trees isn't as fast as it would be if those beech had been removed for firewood or biomass because the tops of the trees may still inhibit the expansion of the tops of the remaining trees as you can see in the following photo. The dead tree can still whip around in the wind damaging the live crowns of the remaining trees until they break off, hopefully not landing on anyone.

Girdled hemlock to benefit oak
The photo to the left shows where I girdled a hemlock to benefit another oak. Sometimes even when you do this correctly, it takes some years for the tree to die, so the tree can continue to shade the ground, holding back regeneration and other ground vegetation.

The photo directly below shows a triple headed black birch which might seem like a nice firewood tree, but if you ever cut trees, you'd know that this tree can be very dangerous to cut because it's hard to tell which way it will fall- the base of each stem is a bit too high to try dropping individually. In this case, the stand is way up a mountain side, too far from a road, and this work was done in the '90s when the market for firewood was very low- so I couldn't find a firewood operator. A harvesting machine could easily and safely cut this tree.
Triple Headed Black Birch

Hardwood with ingrown bark
The last photo is an example of what can go wrong with girdling- sometimes the trees don't die, especially big, rough, hardwood culls with ingrown bark. In this case, just above the image, the tree forks- but this red maple had ingrown bark due to that forking that goes right to the middle and right to the bottom, since it forked at an early age. In a case like this you need to carefully drive the saw right through the middle of the tree to sever all the cambium and if you don't, the tree will produce callus tissue where you missed a section of cambium, and it will survive perhaps another 100 years! Having to girdle through the middle is time consuming and dangerous. If it was a biomass harvest, the tree would be gone. 

The point of all this is that the state is pushing to get land into forestry but is now holding back the development of a responsible biomass industry due to a relatively low carbon emission pattern which the Manomet Report said will self correct within a reasonable time frame, if the biomass plant is well designed, if it's CHP or thermal, if the wood all comes from well managed forests. The state is acting schizophrenic over this- it wants forestry but keeps us from doing it well. A solution must be found that gives us this wonderful tool without a severe cost to the global environment. Everyone needs to compromise. The biomass builders need to focus on thermal or CHP and the anti biomass people need to understand that we really need this tool and that it's not the most evil thing ever invented comparable to Nazi extermination ovens, as one opponent recently said. The opponents also need to admit that they too have a carbon footprint, their own, as they fly in carbon spewing jets, eat beef from carbon spewing industrial agriculture, drive their large comfortable cars, watch oversized TVs, heat their homes, etc. The opponents also need to understand that the forestry community is not going to back down. Either this battle will escalate and get truly ugly, more than now, or we can all sit down and compromise in the true spirit of American democracy.

Joe Zorzin has been a forester in western Massachusetts for 38 years working in every type of forest in the region. His clients include a Guild Model Forest (the only one in Massachusetts).

Joe’s 1/3 Rule of Thumb in Forest Management found at

Joseph Zorzin, Forester License #261
Address: PO Box 388, Athol, MA 01331
cell phone: 413-212-0518

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, I like your work.It is really very hard to cut the wood in very hot season.You did a great job.Thanks for sharing.