Why California is fighting fire with fire

Slim pine trunks stacked in a mound loomed over my head, curving
around me in a partial circle like a dam built by
Brontosaurus-sized beavers. I’d followed a long unmarked dirt
road earlier this year to see it: One of 48 wood piles in a 12
square-mile section of the Tahoe National Forest outside the town
of Truckee in northern California. You can find similar scenes
across the western United States, anywhere work crews are clearing
brush and small trees from forests.

They’re monuments to a widespread effort to cull tinder for
future wildfires. Drought, disease, and insects have left 100
million dead trees browning across California
, and in some
places,
90 percent
of the trees have died. All this dry wood can stoke
small blazes into uncontrollable infernos that ravage towns and
choke the region with smoke. Last year was California’s worst
fire season yet, with blazes blackening an area
the size of Delaware
and killing 104 people. Forests are so
unhealthy they are now emitting more carbon than they produce,

according to
recent
studies.

At the same time, California is counting on its forests sucking
up lots of carbon from cars, factories, and power plants to meet
its goals to slash carbon emissions. “If forests are
greenhouse-gas emitters rather than sinks, it puts a massive hole
in those plans,” said Patrick Gonzalez, a forest ecologist at the
University of California at Berkeley who led one of those
studies.

Those giant piles of wood were just a tiny part of a massive
outlay of money and sweat to restore forests in California and
across the West. The state has removed 1.5 million dead trees in
the last three years, said Nic Enstice, a scientist at the Sierra
Nevada Conservancy, a California state agency. “But we’re not
keeping pace,” he said. “There are way more dead trees out
there than we will ever get to.”

When settlers took control of what would become the western
United States in the 1800s, they started putting out the fires,
reversing the Native American practice of setting fires to manage
forests. After nearly two centuries of fire suppression, the
forests have changed. Shade-tolerant species like incense cedar and
white fir have crowded under the pines, Enstice said. Once spacious
groves are now choked with small trees and brush. And when drought
hits California, exacerbated by ever-hotter summers, these trees
have to compete for scarce water. As they dry up, the pines are
unable to produce the sap needed to fend off bark beetles, which
girdle one tree after another, turning big patches of forest canopy
from green to a sickly reddish-brown.

The 15-foot towers of kindling that I saw aren’t even the
largest, said Steve Frisch, president of the Sierra Business
Council, a nonprofit that works to improve the region surrounding
the Sierra Nevada mountains. “I’ve seen these piles when I’m
out mountain biking,” he said. “I come around a corner and all
of a sudden there’s this freaking massive mound of wood the size
of a four-story apartment building.”

It’s so difficult and expensive to haul these mounds out of
the forests that workers often end up dousing them with lighter
fluid and setting them ablaze. Better to release the heat and
pollution during the winter, they figure, rather than in the summer
as part of a wildfire. But either way, the result is more carbon
emissions.

The situation has led some environmentalists to a
counterintuitive idea: turning that wood into energy. When wood
burns in power plants, the smoke passes through a series of filters
so that the plume that drifts up from the smokestack has almost
none of the harmful particulates
that would be released if it
burned in a wildfire or bonfire. It’s a way to reduce pollution
and generate energy at the same time. Advocates imagine small
wood-burning plants scattered throughout the West, providing power
to mountain towns and providing an economic incentive to keep
clearing excess wood, shrink forest fires, and allow the remaining
trees to grow stronger and healthier.

These wood-fired plants produce what’s known as biomass
energy. Biomass is just the general term for grass, dung, corn, or
anything else containing energy (soaked up from sunlight) stored in
chains of carbon (soaked up from the air). By burning biomass, you
release the sun’s energy in the form of heat and light. But you
also release its carbon back into the atmosphere.

That’s one of the reasons it’s controversial as hell.
Environmentalists have long fought to block biomass power plants.
Turning trees into electricity seems to violate the basic tenets of
tree hugging. There’s
a thorny debate
over whether biomass energy can really be
considered clean or renewable. But there’s no doubt that biomass
plants can be environmental disasters when run improperly. After
all, producing electricity by burning wood produces more carbon and
pollution per kilowatt than burning coal, the Sierra Club points
out. The group’s California branch recently plastered billboards
with the anti-biomass message, “A tree is a great life source,
not an energy source.” Which makes the fact that some deep-green
activists are campaigning to build wood-burning power plants in
their own backyards all the more surprising.

Jim Turner, who runs a
biomass plant, stands in front of a pile of wood in the Tahoe
National Forest. Photo by Nathanael Johnson

Barbara and Don Rivenes fell in love with the West Coast’s
wilderness after moving to California in 1967 with their young
family. “I just couldn’t get over the landscape,” Barbara
said. “California knocked my socks off.”

They became avid environmentalists, volunteering and attending
countless meetings. Barbara was the sole employee for the Golden
Gate Audubon Society and Don served on the state board — “and
every other damn thing,” Barbara said. In 1997, the Rivenes moved
to Nevada City, a town enveloped by a green mantle of ponderosa
pines in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas between Sacramento and
Lake Tahoe. They dove into the work of protecting the forest.
Barbara got involved with the local Sierra Club chapter, and Don
became executive director of the
Forest Issues Group
— a watchdog organization that tries to
stop companies from logging and destroying habitat.

When government officials and fire experts formed a group to
figure out what to do with all the wood stacking up in the
surrounding forests — a biomass task force — Barbara and Don
seemed like perfect candidates to represent the
environmentalist’s perspective.

In 2010, they attended their first of many task-force meetings
in a packed government building. Bureaucrats, politicians, and fire
experts from universities floated proposals for taking care of the
wood. The timber was too small to turn into traditional lumber, but
it could serve as dandy fence posts or maybe woodchips for a
playground. None of the suggestions would’ve put a dent in the
massive supply. More promising was the idea of using wood for the

construction of tall buildings
instead of concrete and steel,
which together produce about 10 percent of the world’s greenhouse
gas emissions. That
would sequester the carbon small trees had absorbed during their
lives
. But current
building codes make it hard
to build very tall wood structures.
In the meantime, the experts concluded, the cost of trucking the
wood out of the forest would exceed the amount anyone would pay. So
the stacks stayed put.

As the meetings piled up, Don and Barbara gradually became
convinced that biomass energy plants could help the Western United
States manage its forests. Though they still opposed cutting down
trees just to burn them, they reasoned that it would be better to
burn trees in biomass plants than to burn those house-sized mounds
where they stood. Burning wood efficiently in biomass furnaces and
running the smoke through filters would eliminate most of the
particulate pollution, including 98
percent
of the soot — sometimes called the
second most important heat-trapping pollutant after carbon
dioxide
.

The Nevada County task force — Barbara and Don included —
launched a study that
found
that the ongoing work of thinning dense trees from the
surrounding forests would generate nearly five times as much wood
as a 3-megawatt plant (providing enough energy to power 3,000
homes) could use every year. That relieved the Rivenes’ concern
that a biomass plant could lead to deforestation. “It seemed like
there are good possibilities for this, if you are careful,”
Barbara said.

Steve Eubanks, with
Barbara and Don Rivenes, on the site selected for a biomass plant
in Grass Valley, California. Photo by Nathanael Johnson

The notion of peppering California’s rural mountain towns with
small wood-burning power plants might have sounded improbable when
this local group started meeting. But then California’s
legislature
passed a law to subsidize small biomass plants
in 2012. The
idea behind the legislation was that plants would spring up to
provide power to small towns, providing an economic incentive to
clear fuels out of the path of future wildfires. A private company
expressed interest in building a plant in Grass Valley, next door
to Nevada City, if it could work out a deal to sell the power it
generated to California’s primary utility company, Pacific Gas
& Electric.

Locals seemed to like the idea, which sounds incredible to
anyone familiar with area. In the 1960s, the region became a
popular refuge for hippies and artists from the Bay Area — folks
who usually embrace nature and fight to shut down logging
operations. “In Nevada City, if there was someone standing on the
corner handing out $100 bills, there would be people protesting,”
said Steve Eubanks, the former supervisor of the Tahoe National
Forest and a member of that biomass task force. “But there
hasn’t been serious opposition to this.”

The plant might already be under construction were it not for a
twist of fate. The company behind the proposed Grass Valley biomass
plant couldn’t negotiate a deal to sell power to PG&E because
the utility declared bankruptcy in January. The main reason it
filed for Chapter 11 protection: massive liability claims from
wildfires. In an irony that crops up routinely in our warming
world, efforts to adapt to a rapidly changing environment were
thwarted by a rapidly changing environment.

Traditionally, environmentalists have fought to stop chainsaws
and bulldozers, so it’s no surprise that most oppose logging for
biomass energy. Outfits like the Natural Resource Defense Council,
for instance, have been campaigning against the practice of
clearcutting forests in Southeastern states to make wood pellets
for export to biomass plants in Europe. Although small,
California-style biomass plants have drawn support from some major
environmental groups, others, like the Center for Biological
Diversity and the John Muir Project, remain adamantly opposed. Part
of the reason is that the opposition to burning anything for energy
that releases carbon into the air runs deep.

“Treating the trees in our forests like they are sticks of
coal is one of the biggest threats to climate change mitigation
that’s out there right now,” said Chad Hanson, a lawyer and
forest ecologist who directs the John Muir Project.

In the Western states, the fight over biomass isn’t just about
the best ways to create energy; it’s also a dispute over how to
manage forests. Some groups argue for prescribed burns and
selective cutting to restore forests to something closer to how
they were before settlers started clearcutting and suppressing
fire.

But according to Hanson, the conventional wisdom that
California’s forests are unhealthily dense with wildfire fuel and
need to be cleaned up is just wrong. He rejects the idea that
thinning forests — and creating the fuel for biomass plants along
the way — makes wildfires any less destructive.

Instead of a build-up of needles and branches, Hanson sees a
build-up of carbon. It seems crazy, from his perspective, to burn
this wood before a wildfire gets to it and release all that carbon
into the air. Better to spend money on fireproofing houses and let
the forests burn and recover as they may, Hanson said. “That’s
one of the key aspects of the dominant narrative: You’ve got to
go thin the forest — no, no, you don’t,” he said. “Biomass
logging does not prevent fires. The more you do it, the more likely
the fires are going to burn hotter, and faster, and more
intensely.”

In a review of
scientific studies
on forest carbon management, two professors
at Oregon State University, Beverly Law and Mark Harmon, made the
case that cutting small trees to reduce carbon emissions from
wildfires simply doesn’t work because you end up having to remove
more wood than those fires would burn — leaving fewer trees to
store carbon.

Even if you embrace Hanson’s position that a hands-off
approach is best, utilities and municipal workers in California
continue cutting down trees to protect themselves from fire.
Homeowners are supposed to clear a “defensible space” 100 feet
from their houses. All that work is generating tons of woody
biomass. I asked Kathryn Phillips, who leads the lobbying efforts
for Sierra Club California, if she thought it made sense to burn
that wood to generate energy.

Though Phillips’ organization is officially neutral on the
point, her response was that people shouldn’t be burning wood at
all. The best option is to leave the wood in the forest. The rest
might be chipped up or used for furniture and building materials.
If people need to clear fuels off their land, “they need to
figure out options to do something with that wood,” she said.
“And if those options don’t exist they need to complain to the
state. Burning it in a biomass plant isn’t the answer.”

Almost all of the researchers I talked to thought that forest
would be healthier with some thinning and burning to repair the
legacy of clearcutting and fire suppression. Researchers were
split, however, on the question of whether managing forests, or
leaving them to the whims of nature, would allow them to soak up
more carbon from the atmosphere. I began to notice a pattern:
Scientists based in Oregon and Washington would tell me that simply
leaving forests be was the best way to catch carbon, while
researchers in Arizona and California would stress the importance
of cutting some trees and performing prescribed burns. It makes
sense: Forests get a lot more flammable as you move south. In the
more arid parts of the West, they’re adapted to fires passing
through as often as every five years, but a century of fire
suppression has left them starved for burns.

The differing views even show up in the models researchers build
to forecast how forests will respond to management. If you assume
forests will rarely burn, as they did in the era of fire
suppression, your models will show that it’s better to let nature
take its course, said Dick Cameron, director of terrestrial science
for The Nature Conservancy. In short, whether thinning and
controlled burns can help trees suck up more carbon likely depends
on the changing climate, Cameron said.

The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy recently reviewed the science on
California’s forests and determined that thinning trees and
setting prescribed burns — “active management” — would
release more carbon in the beginning but pay off in the long run
with big, carbon-gulping trees that can survive forest fires.

That jibes with what the many scientists I talked to told me.
Trees in dense thickets compete for water, said Matthew Hurteau, a
scientist at the University of New Mexico who studies the way
forests adapt to climate change. When researchers remove small
trees, he said, the remaining larger trees grew rapidly, sucking up
more carbon and storing it in thicker rings of wood than previous
years

For the Nature Conservancy, it isn’t just a question of
carbon. The organization is also interested in improving wildlife
habitat, safeguarding clean water supplies, and protecting people
from the harmful effects of wildfire smoke. “There are a lot of
reasons we really see a need to actively manage these forests,”
Cameron said. Actively managing even a small percentage of
California’s forest land would generate many more giant piles of
wood that might go to biomass plants.

Although Nevada City wasn’t able to work out a deal with
PG&E, other biomass projects are getting underway in mountain
towns across northern California as residents come to the same
realization as Rivenes’ task force. The town of Quincy built a biomass
furnace
last year to supply heat and power to government
buildings. In the foothills east of Fresno, the town of
North Fork
is building another small plant. Both have the
support of local environmental nonprofits.
In Calaveras County
, southeast of Sacramento,
one organic farmer has been rallying support
to build a biomass
generator. In Mariposa County, which includes part of Yosemite
National Park, a group of renewable power enthusiasts embraced biomass after
they realized that the county couldn’t get off fossil fuels by
just relying on solar, wind, and batteries (nobody has figured out
how to do that yet without occasionally leaving the town in the
dark) The forests in that part of the state are so unhealthy that
even the most chainsaw-adverse tree hugger might have second
thoughts.

“We have people drive up here and say, ‘Why are all your
trees dead?’ There are areas that look like they’ve been hit by
a bomb,” said Steve Smallcombe, one of the volunteers working to
get a small biomass plant in Mariposa. “I think environmentalists
see that the way our forests have become isn’t good for
anyone.”

Several environmental activists told me that as forests have
deteriorated, they’ve seen a shift in the way environmental
groups approached biomass plants. They’ve moved from outright
opposition to silence, and sometimes have even campaigned on behalf
of small plants. The nonprofit Sierra Institute for Community and
the Environment, for instance, championed Quincy’s biomass
plant.

“It’s always anxiety-producing to support something related
to cutting down trees,” said Sue Britting, executive director of
the environmental group Sierra Forest Legacy. “But we have
certainly been neutral on some biomass plants — and sometimes
support them outright.”

This change in environmental attitudes might signal the start of
a new stage in the relationship between humans and forests in the
West. In the first stage, Native Americans used forests
sustainably, frequently setting them on fire to clear out
underbrush and improve habitat for game, according to Jonathan
Kusel, the Sierra Institute for Community and the Environment’s
executive director. In the second stage, starting in the Gold Rush
and continuing into the 1950s, when logging peaked
in California
, Americans levelled forests. “The history of
the timber industry is one of cutting across the country, leaving
the land bare and moving on,” Kusel said.

In the third stage, environmentalists fought the timber industry
and, by the 1990s, they’d effectively won, putting an end to most
logging in the state. This victory, Kusel said, went too far,
thwarting good forest management and leaving people in many small
towns without much work. “Twenty years ago, environmentalists and
industry were both saying, ‘We’re fighting on the side of rural
communities,’” Kusel said. “They were both lying.” The
timber industry just wanted to extract profits and move on, he said
— and once environmental groups won in court, they moved on,
too.

The fourth stage of this relationship between humans and trees,
then, could be a return to sustainable use — in which forests
provide wood for people to build houses and maybe some renewable
energy.

Those giant piles of wood I saw this spring have been sitting in
the forest for years now. Jim Turner, who runs a biomass plant a
half hour away in the town of Loyalton, wanted to get his hands on
them.

Turner’s plant was once home to a sawmill, and its generator
burned scrap wood. Its General Electric steam turbine was
manufactured in the 1950s, but mechanics rebuilt it entirely in
2010. Now the machine hums along — producing enough electricity
to power 20,000 houses — possessing the weathered beauty of a
well-made old tool.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News 2
Why California is fighting fire with fire