Forest Health, Wildfire Mitigation, and Rural Jobs: A Look at SBC’s New Biomass Report

Biomass in the Sierra Nevada: A Case for Healthy Forests and Rural Economies is the result of years of SBC work, from technical research to on-the-ground projects and interviews, to helping revitalize a local Sierra facility now used as a beacon of possibility throughout statewide reports, planning, and conversations. After a year of digging into the knowledge base of SBC along with our partners in the science, social, and academic fields, I’m proud to share this meaningful product with you. You can click here to view the report in its entirety, or if you prefer the Cliff Notes version, I’ve laid out the purpose and findings of this hard work below. Let’s dig in.Biomass White Paper Cropped

Biomass is a complex web of California policy. It’s not as high-profile and far-reaching as housing, and it’s not as sexy and technology-forward as transportation, but it is the nexus of fire, energy, and trees, and in the face of climate change, what else is there to talk about?

We need healthy forests. The forests of the Sierra Nevada are not healthy – they’re overgrown, laden with dead and dry timber, and vulnerable to drought and insect infestation. Ecologically resilient forests store more carbon, and allow low intensity fire to burn through, with decreased risk of crown fires and tree mortality. Fire in a healthy forest is a necessary part of the cycle – not something to be actively suppressed. For the last century, fire management has been a policy of outright suppression – forest land managers had a mandate to put out fires by 10 am the next day, no matter the resource cost. Now we suppress fires because if they are allowed to burn, they grow into catastrophic events that wipe out homes and ecosystems.

We’re left with a type of fire these forests are not equipped to handle. These catastrophic fires frequently result in a dead forest that can’t recover after burning, consequently converting into grass and shrubland which stores about 10% of the carbon that the forested landscape stored. This is a daunting problem when we talk about climate change and the role forests need to play in carbon sequestration. In an ecologically managed forest, these issues are minimized.

To get our forests to the point where fire can resume its natural role, we need to actively manage them. We’ve caused this problem; it’s our job to help solve it. Mechanical and hand thinning – people and machines going in and removing biomass material – produces a LOT of biomass. You’ve likely seen piles of it while out hiking in the region.

A recent CPUC analysis found that there are 248 million tons of biomass in California’s High Hazard Zones alone. This would take our current timber and mill infrastructure 100 years to process. We can do three things with the material: leave it in forest to rot (anyone who’s ever thrown their Christmas tree in the backyard knows how long that takes to degrade), burn it in piles (which significantly reduces air quality), or utilize it for an industrial process, like combusting in a biomass facility to produce renewable energy and waste heat, or for an added value wood product like oriented strand board or chemical extraction.

The key is that we know we need to manage our forests, we know it will cost upwards of $3 billion per year to do it on the scale that is required, and we know public funds alone cannot close that gap. Having an energy and a timber market for that material begins to close that funding gap.

One of the major challenges of biomass is that it’s tough to pencil out economically if all you’re doing is trucking chips to a plant and burning them for energy for the grid. But the triple bottom line is not just economics – it’s social and environmental benefits too. Environmental benefits include reduced wildfire risk, increased fire resilience, improved watersheds, reduced particulate emissions during wildfire, and net carbon sink forests, rather than net carbon emitter forests (which is what they’ve been for the past two years. Economically, we get reduced fire suppression costs – hugely important when state and federal agencies are maxing out their budgets early in the fiscal year to meet fire suppression needs, leaving less money to proactively manage forests. We also see increased hydropower downstream, resulting in a market mechanism to offset that cost of publicly funded forest restoration. Socially we reduce our wildfire risk for human communities, we increase high paying, year-round jobs in rural communities, we get dispatchable baseload power generation, and improved air quality and public health benefits that accompany that.

This, in a nutshell, is how we at SBC are thinking about biomass. We need our partners to coalesce around this idea of triple bottom line biomass. We need legislators to hear us and create a favorable regulatory environment. We need the public to understand why we think the way we do, and we need communities to fight for appropriately scaled biomass investment in their backyards. The message is simple: we want to reduce wildfire risk, we want healthy forests for a changing climate, and we want people to be gainfully employed. I hope you join us.

To learn more, check out the report in its entirety here.