National Forest Slash Piles Eyed for Fuel

In national forests from Arizona to Montana, thousands of slash piles left by the timber industry could be used to produce cellulosic ethanol. Before that can happen, the language in the Energy Bill must be changed.
By Hope Deutscher
From renewable energy companies to private organizations, many entities see the potential for energy derived from biomass sitting in piles in the United States' 155 national forests.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which was signed into law in December, includes an historic 36 billion gallon renewable fuels standard (RFS), a portion of which will be made from biomass. A last-minute change in the legislation's definition of renewable biomass, however, prevents almost all federal land biomass-such as trees, wood, brush, thinnings, chips, and slash-from counting toward the mandate if it is used to manufacture biofuels. "At times we get calls for prospective biomass consumers and cellulosic ethanol investors who want to know how much wood the Black Hills can provide," says Blaine Cook, a forest silviculturist with the Black Hills National Forest, who is also the biomass coordinator for the forest.

Currently there are 3,126 slash piles in the Black Hills National Forest from saw timber harvest and thinning, which Cook says is equivalent to 239,000 green tons. And there are slash piles totaling more than a million tons (air dry) that are 1 to 4 years of age in the forest.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., notes that biomass was eligible to be counted toward the 2005 RFS, but when the 2007 energy package was crafted behind closed doors, it changed the way that waste material from national forests could be used. "America's national forests provide one of our greatest renewable resources," Thune says. "To exclude slash piles and other wastes from within our national forests to be counted towards the renewable fuels standard simply makes no sense. It is unfortunate that the harmful definition of renewable biomass was inserted by the House Democratic leadership at the last minute, and it is critical that Congress fix this definition before the new RFS rules take effect on Jan. 1, 2009."

The U.S. Forest Service, timber and alternative energy groups have met with South Dakota's congressional delegation to discuss the exclusion of biomass from the federal Energy Bill. Thune and U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., have since introduced separate bills to change the definition of renewable biomass, as it was written in earlier versions of the Energy Bill. The legislation also promotes the development and use of cellulosic ethanol derived from woody biomass on federal lands. The Black Hills National Forest, a dense ponderosa pine forest covers an area 125 miles long and 65 miles wide in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. "This provision not only discourages the use of such biomass, but in doing so could result in a decrease in responsible forest management by denying land managers an important outlet for the excessive biomass loads that often accumulate on public lands," Herseth Sandlin says. "Amending the definition of renewable biomass in the Energy Bill will greatly improve our ability to manufacture renewable energy from our forestlands, both public and private, all over the country. This would bring tremendous benefits, not only to our environment, to forest health, and to our national security, but it will also provide an economically viable outlet for forest byproducts that could revitalize the local economies of hundreds of small forest communities across the country, including those in the Black Hills."

Herseth Sandlin's bill significantly broadens the definition of cellulosic ethanol within the RFS to include more biomass gathered from federal land and would allow RFS credit for broad categories of biomass from nonfederal and tribal lands including agricultural commodities, plants and trees, algae, crop residue, waste material (including wood waste and wood residues), animal waste and byproducts (including fats, oils, greases, and manure), construction waste, and food and yard waste. The Renewable Biofuels Facilitation Act was co-sponsored by a geographically diverse and bipartisan group, including representatives Greg Walden, R-Ore., Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., Bart Stupak, D-Mich., Mike Ross, D-Ark., Chip Pickering, R-Miss., Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., Jo Bonner, R-Ala., and John Peterson, R-Pa. Under the proposed legislation, biomass projects conducted on federal lands would still have to comply with federal and state law, as well as applicable land management plans. On Feb. 7, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the RFS.

The National Forest System and Forest Service, an agency of the USDA, manages a system of 155 national forests and 222 research and experimental forests, as well as 20 national grasslands and other special areas, covering more than 192 million acres of public land. The national forests, which were first called forest reserves, began with the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. The act allowed presidents to establish forest reserves from timber-covered public domain land. Throughout the years, leaders and visionaries have worked with scientific and conservation organizations, as well as forest professionals to retain millions of acres of federally designated forest land for future generations.

Black Hills National Forest officials say their goal is to have a healthy forest that is green, diverse and productive, and provides homes for wildlife and fish. The forest is actively thinned to fend off mountain pine beetles and reduce the risk of crown fires. As well, the logging and timber industry helps the forest service thin the forest. "We're thinning and logging in areas of high risk from insects and fire so the bugs can't get established and fires can burn at low intensity," says Dave Thom, Black Hills national resources staff officer. Trees that are thinned and logged and treated with prescribed burns don't have to compete with so many other trees for water and nutrients. They grow faster, are healthier and result in stronger more resilient forests, Thom says.

Energy Source
KL Process Design Group, a biofuels design-build company based in Rapid City, S.D., recently started a cellulosic ethanol facility in Upton, Wyo. The company is utilizing wood chips from private landowners in the Black Hills. "The Black Hills National Forest has several pockets within it of private landowners so we will be utilizing those particular pockets of wooded area for now. And, of course, our hope is on the backend that the Energy Bill will be changed and open that up." A juvenile corrections facility south of Custer, S.D., which just put in a biomass furnace, and a Rapid City cabinet maker are also using wood waste from the forest. All three sources just want a couple trucks a week, Cook says. "The remaining piles out there reach a point of starting to decay and once the wood fiber starts to go, after about a year and a half, they are burned."

Tom Martin, media relations manager for KL Process, says the company is working with the state's congressional leaders to change federal policy. "We're trying to work hard with our congressional leaders in South Dakota to perhaps get some concessions on that or even turn it around," Martin says. "We don't think from a useable standpoint that it makes a lot of sense, it kind of takes the teeth out of the cellulosic part of the Energy Bill, and so we're working hard to try and get that turned around a bit." At public meetings, KL Process President, Dave Litzen has said the biomass in the Black Hills National Forest slash piles could produce 30 million gallons of ethanol.

It's difficult to find anyone who is opposed to using federal forest biomass for energy. Representatives from the South Dakota Chapter of the Sierra Club have said that the national Sierra Club and the local chapter don't oppose using wood waste from the national forests for energy. However, they don't want the Black Hills National Forest to be used a as a fuel farm; any biomass gathered for alternative fuel should be done within the existing forest management plan. Headquartered in Rapid City, the Black Hills Forest Resource Association is a nonprofit membership-supported organization devoted to improving forest management, decision-making and policies on the Black Hills National Forest. BHFRA members support protecting the Black Hills' forest environment while maintaining its relationship with dependent communities and economies.

HFRA Director Tom Troxel says the association supports Herseth-Sandlin's bill. "When the loggers are logging, they bring the trees into the landing where the tops and limbs are cut off," he says. "And so we have these great big piles at every landing. For the most part they are just burned and there's nobody that wants them left in the woods. The wildlife biologists don't want those piles left at the landings. If those [slash piles] were all left in the woods, it would be a fire hazard and really, anything that we can do now that would encourage any sort of utilization of that is common sense. If we can utilize it rather than burn it, then I think it benefits all around."

As more companies around the country research the use of wood waste as an economical alternative fuel source, Troxel says he would like to see federal policy support for that. "I'd like to see federal energy policy such that it would encourage use of these piles," he says. "It's an economic benefit and it fits into the whole energy independence a lot of folks are thinking about for the United States. If there's a way that we can produce this energy here at home with our own resources, that's a plus."

Troxel says for the foreseeable future there is energy potential from the biomass supply in the Black Hills National Forest. "I think there's going to be an ongoing and continuous need for forest management in the Black Hills," he says. "What I foresee for management strategies and logging systems is that there will be slash piles for a long time into the future that will be available for some sort of utilization."

Hope Deutscher is the Biomass Magazine online editor. Reach her at or (701) 373-0636.