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Slash or Cash?

This year TimberWest is featuring a column dedicated to biomass. In each issue, writer Barbara Coyner will be presenting new information on the topic. Barbara has been writing on the topic for over a decade and will present, among other things, the latest issues, innovative technology, and where the industry is headed.

By Barbara Coyner

When they logged around our house 20 years ago, they torched off slash piles that sometimes smoldered clear into spring. Not the best PR for logging, especially as more urban retirees were moving to the woods. Because several of my neighbors had a hard time finding firewood, it seemed burning wood waste in the woodstove was better than burning it outdoors. But the numbers just weren't there for doing serious wood recovery.

With woody biomass now recognized as a commodity, maybe slash piles will eventually smolder their way into the history books. Probably not entirely, because burning forest residue is a recognized part of the logger's toolkit. But things have begun to change, and the American public is betting on alternative energy like never before. As terms like woody biomass and cellulosic ethanol creep into everyday conversation, loggers, foresters, and mills are thinking about slash in new ways.

Reigniting the Industry
Currently, woody biomass is re-energizing the timber industry. Forget pushing slash into heaps when stewardship contracts allow payment for forest residue. And forget burning slash when Fuels for Schools is all the rage. Loggers are gaining new respect as they thin overstocked forests to reduce wildfire danger and then deliver woody biomass for alternative energy uses. In today's changing world, environmentalists are even knocking at loggers' doors. It all seems so sensible. Thin the forests to reduce wildfires, keep the air clean by not burning, and instead turn slash to cash.

But wait, not so fast. In a game of connect the dots, woody biomass has caught the attention of several players, from energy companies, to pellet companies, to fencing contractors, to animal bedding manufacturers. As entrepreneurs and traditional users arm wrestle over the raw materials for their facilities, the timber industry faces challenges. One look at the Missoula-based website www.TimberBuySell.com shows how many compete for the same pool of wood residue, and how many are thinking outside the slash pile. Here are two issues waiting to be tackled:

To Chip or Not to Chip?
Cruising timber isn't just about board feet anymore. As always, some logs will make it as lumber, but the tops, limbs, and skinny trees now have a market measured in tons. That leaves logging contractors in a situation of determining whether to chip in the woods, bundle the slash and chip it later, or just leave it on the ground and perhaps burn it for forest health. Much depends on whether costs can be recovered, transportation can be easily arranged, and markets can be found. And much depends on what type of equipment the contractor wants to buy.

As fuels reduction trials got underway at Idaho City in 2002, it was clear that most of the equipment demonstrated at the event focused on biomass and in-the-woods chipping. Lately, many loggers have bought new chipping heads -- in part to satisfy a choosier public that might not want slash burned. As more loggers purchase chipping equipment, private landowners are requesting the service, sometimes just to disperse the material back on the ground. If a market can be found, some landowners like the idea that chips are a value-added option. In other words, the biomass frenzy is offering loggers and forest owners a whole new array of choices.

If You Want Chips, Get in Line

After diverse interests agreed that overstocked forests needed to be thinned, some naively thought that the woody biomass supply would be endless. More than a few entrepreneurs developed business plans based on the notion then took out the business loan, only to find out that chips and biomass are now in something of a custody battle.

To quote wood products market expert William Perritt, editor of the Wood Biomass Market Report, "Recent and upcoming project starts in the energy, pellet, and biofuels sectors will add an estimated 37 million tons per year to existing wood fiber demand in North America, and that number could easily jump to 50 million tons in short order."

He continued, "In the rush and excitement to develop North America's largest renewable energy source, established low-grade wood consumers have not always responded positively to the appearance of new players, and these new players should understand that they are going to have to fight much harder than they might have planned to procure enough wood fiber to run at their capacity. In fact, you can clearly see the prices for wood fiber in most regions of North America, as reported in our Report, seeing significant increases."
For loggers and mills, the competition can make wood waste into a value-added product worthy of a bidding war. But the development also means the industry has to patrol itself and not be over eager when it comes to harvesting. These days, sustainability is as popular in the public's vocabulary as alternative energy.


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