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In the Southwest United States, many ponderosa pine forests no longer resemble the pre-European settlement forests that were adapted to frequent, low-severity wildfires. The cumulative effects of fire suppression, livestock grazing, high-grading, and insect outbreaks have created conditions that frequently result in high-severity wildfires.
Thinning treatments are one method to restore forest health and resiliency. However, these treatments result in large volumes of unmerchantable logs, limbs, and tops as a byproduct. This woody biomass has little to no value in the current forest products market and is often piled and burned for disposal because leaving it on the ground can increase the wildfire hazard. Pile burning can negatively impact air quality in the surrounding communities and can also result in burn scars and other negative environmental effects. Expanding markets for woody biomass, such as for bioenergy and bioproducts, would spur more investments in restoration treatments that mitigate wildfire risks and improve forest health.
Studying the feasibility of developing a biomass market in the region was made possible by grant funding from the USDA-NIFA’s Biomass Research and Development Initiative and involved researchers with the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS), the University of Montana, Virginia Tech, and Northern Arizona University. They analyzed the economics of forest operations, evaluated post-treatment ecological forest response, and quantified the public health benefits of shifting to forest-based bioenergy from fossil fuels.
The research team found that improving the efficiencies of forest operations could lower the costs of restoration treatments, and negative ecological impacts could be mitigated by matching the correct equipment to the site conditions. The effects of restoration treatments were observable on the landscape 5 years post-treatment, which further supports investment in these treatments. There were also net economic and public health benefits recognized by using biomass for bioenergy. This new research suggests that restoration treatments are a worthwhile investment to reduce wildfire hazards, but there are tradeoffs to consider when developing forest-based bioenergy.