Where would the wood?… 

I enjoyed the article “Wood Takes Wing” in the Winter 16 edition of Washington State Magazine on the many possibilities for wood as a new source of carbon molecules for all of those polymers we take for granted. Technologies that allow us to reduce burning of fossil fuels for energy recognize its highest value. The potential for atmospheric carbon reduction is a plus.

But there was an unasked question hanging behind the article—where will the timber come from to fill the old mills? The same environmental groups who just say no to transporting or burning fossil fuels also eagerly block timber harvests. It would be interesting to see a future project out of WSU that addresses the politics of where wood comes from.

Sue Lani Madsen ’78, B. Arch.


From the editor:

Sue, thanks for your note. You bring up an excellent question.

The science behind using biomass as a way to help diversify our domestic fuels and plastics is pretty clear, if not precisely settled: With science-based forest management plans in place, we can have our cake and eat it too. 

We can have the wood products we need for building or utensils, and from the “waste” (residuals) from the harvest process, we can develop the fuels and chemicals for industry as described in the story, while still leaving plenty of wild places for wildlife and humans. As NARA scientists have shown, by leaving about 30 percent of the post-harvest residuals on the forest floor, enough organic matter remains for the next generation of plants to thrive. This same residual material also provides forest floor habitat for animals. The same science-based management plan would also reduce fire danger.

It is also worth noting that NARA is currently working solely with private land owners to obtain harvest residuals and to conduct economic and social analyses; no public lands were involved in the NARA project.

That said, your implied point is well taken: How will we as a society educate ourselves and come to a consensus about the best uses of limited (if, in this case, renewable) natural resources? While NARA doesn’t have an explicit answer to that question, the NARA project’s ongoing outreach and education programs suggest that we are rapidly moving toward a consensus that will indeed allow us to collectively share the wealth in our forests. One of the driving forces behind that emerging consensus is, as you might well imagine, climate change. The environmental movement is coalescing around the climate crisis and, at the same time, recognizing the value of pragmatic solutions such as those developed by NARA and the other regional biofuels projects as ways of reducing our carbon footprint while enabling us to continue to live the energy-intensive lives we have become so accustomed to.