Wood-to-Energy Platforms: Perspectives from the U.S. Forest Service

Rob Doudrick, Director, Resource Use Sciences
25x’25, 5th National Summit, Woody Biomass in America’s Energy Future
Arlington, VA
— April 2, 2009

It’s a pleasure to be here today on behalf of Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell to discuss an issue of national importance—the conversion of woody biomass to energy. We care deeply about this issue at the Forest Service, because it affects our ability to fulfill our mission.

The mission of the Forest Service is to sustain the health, resilience, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands for the benefit of present and future generations. Our mission extends to both public and private forests nationwide. We are deeply concerned because we see a number of serious challenges to sustainability, particularly in connection with climate change.

Climate Change

Our whole context is climate change. As temperatures change, so do precipitation patterns and a host of other factors. Climatic disruptions result—disrupted patterns of hot and cold, wet and dry, calm and storm, drizzles and downpours, snowpacks and snowmelt. In response, species are beginning to change their behavior—even move to new locations. As natural communities rearrange themselves, landscapes are beginning to shift.

We see some of the most direct effects in Alaska—a harbinger, perhaps, of things to come. In the coastal rainforests of Southeast Alaska, for example, climate-related changes have triggered a massive die-off of Alaska yellow-cedar, one of the state’s most valuable species. The vast boreal forests in the Alaska interior are also vulnerable to ecological change triggered by warming. Because permafrost is thawing, shallow-rooted black spruce forests have toppled over in many lowland areas. And because soils are drying in upland areas, white spruce forests are dying.

A warmer climate also adds energy to storms; however, we need to be careful here—weather is tremendously variable, and no particular weather event can be ascribed to climate change alone. We do know that scientists predict that climate change will intensify storm activity—and that storm damage has devastated forests in the United States. For example, Hurricanes Hugo in 1989 and Katrina in 2005 destroyed millions of acres of valuable pine forests in the South. These storms have reset ecological succession, and invasive species are now vying to claim the damaged areas.

As destructive as these impacts are, they pale by comparison to the indirect impacts of climate change. These impacts come through normal forest stressors like drought, insects, and wildland fires. Climate change can raise the frequency and intensity of these stressors to the point where they cause lasting ecological damage or destruction and lead to perhaps irreversible ecological shifts, releasing vast amounts of carbon.

First, drought. Scientists warn that climate change is likely to increase the severity of drought around much of the globe, including the western United States. Although the West is naturally arid, it is a fast-growing region, placing tremendous pressure on scarce water supplies. One expert put it this way: “You can’t call it a drought anymore, because it’s going over to a drier climate. No one says the Sahara is in drought.”

The impacts on forests are already clear. Drought has weakened trees, reducing their resistance to insect attack. At the same time, a warmer climate has greatly increased pine beetle activity. Two types of low-elevation pines, pinyon pine and ponderosa pine, have died on more than 2.5 million hectares due to a combination of drought and bark beetle infestations.

At higher elevations and farther north, mountain pine beetle has killed lodgepole pine across vast landscapes. It is invading new territory as the climate warms. Mountain pine beetle is expected to march from British Columbia eastward and southward across Canada’s boreal forest into the United States, while southern pine beetle could migrate northward from our southern states, invading new territory as well.

These indirect impacts also interact with the effects of our previous management; for example, many fire-adapted forests in the United States have grown denser than they were historically, making them more susceptible to drought and insect attack. Overgrown forests and insect-killed trees, coupled with drought, are creating huge fire hazards. Wildfire activity in the West has quadrupled since the 1970s. In 2004 and 2005, more than 8 million acres burned each year; in 2006 and 2007, it was more than 9 million. Given climate change and the current fuels situation, the number of acres burned annually could go as high as 12 to 15 million acres in the coming years. Highly severe fires will put lives at risk, causing billions of dollars in damage and leaving soils and ecosystems devastated, potentially for decades to come.

Americans use and enjoy their forests for all the services they provide … supporting services like nutrient cycling, soil formation, and primary production … provisioning services like wood, forage, and freshwater … regulating services like water purification, carbon sequestration, and erosion control … and cultural services like educational experiences and outdoor recreation. The Forest Service role, as we see it, is to help sustain the health and resilience of forests so they will continue to provide these ecosystem services on both public and private lands.

Climate change, in tandem with other factors, is threatening the sustainability of America’s forests, preventing them from providing all the ecosystem services that Americans want and need. We are in a whole new management environment. With climate change driving so much of what we see happening across the landscape, we must think and act in a more integrated fashion. We need integrated solutions to address a whole host of factors that are connected in new ways under conditions that are constantly changing.

Strategic Framework

What can we do? Our researchers have been working on climate change for about 20 years now, and our forest managers have been addressing climate change—without calling it that—for as long as we have been writing silvicultural prescriptions. Now we are working on an integrated approach. In 2008, the Forest Service adopted a Strategic Framework for Responding to Climate Change based on seven strategic goals in three broad categories: foundational, structural, and action.

Our two foundational goals are science and education. We need sound science to understand climate change. We also need a public that is aware of climate change and that is willing, through its elected representatives, to provide resources to address climate change.

Our two structural goals are agency policy and alliances with other organizations. Next to a firm foundation of science and public support, we need the right institutional structure to respond to climate change. And we can’t do it alone. We need to work together—which is partly why we are here, to build alliances.

Finally, we have three action goals: adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable operations. All three hinge on a strong foundation in science and education as well as an institutional structure based on sound policies and strong alliances.

Sustainable operations involve practicing what we preach by reducing our environmental footprint as an organization—emitting less carbon, using less energy, and so on. We have a plan in place, and we are making progress.

Adaptation and mitigation are at the core of our response to climate change. Our goal is to help natural systems adapt to climate-related stresses while continuing to deliver all the ecosystem services that Americans want and need. We also want to maximize carbon storage in natural systems by finding the optimal balance between carbon emissions and sequestration, making sure to take any tradeoffs with other ecosystem services into account.

Fortunately, these goals are generally linked, and that brings me—finally—to woody biomass utilization and wood-to-energy platforms.

Woody Biomass Utilization

America’s forests have historically been strategic assets in building the nation. We will expect them to continue to be a strategic asset in meeting the nation’s goals. Decreases in the availability and security of petroleum supplies coupled with global increases in demand have been driving energy, transportation, food, and fiber prices higher. Dependence on petroleum threatens U.S. energy, economic, and environmental security. 

America’s forests constitute the world’s fourth largest forest estate, a tremendous reserve of woody biomass. Biomass is a renewable resource that has the potential to supply a significant portion of U.S. liquid transportation fuels, chemicals, and substitutes for fossil-fuel-intensive products. Wood is an abundant, sustainable, home-grown resource that can contribute to meeting national goals.


In 2008, the Forest Service adopted a Woody Biomass Utilization Strategy. Woody biomass is generally low in economic value and therefore wasted—burned or dumped in landfills. If we can find new uses, then we can recover part of the cost of removal. Even better, we can mitigate climate change by storing carbon in wood products or by converting biomass to energy and offsetting fossil fuel use. To accomplish our goals, we have a Forest Service woody biomass utilization team and an interagency woody biomass utilization group working across all natural resource disciplines.

To attract investors, biomass-based enterprises must have a steady and reliable supply of materials, and the Forest Service is working with partners to secure sustainable supplies. In Oregon, for example, a partnership of local businesses and community groups won a Forest Service grant to apply a coordinated resource offering protocol, or CROP. A CROP helps calculate the biomass supplies available in a region on a 5-, 10-, and 15-year basis. Then delivery can be coordinated in a way that evens out the flow, creating a sustainable basis for biofuels businesses. A number of CROPs have been implemented across the country.

Woody biomass utilization is also a great source of jobs in an economy that desperately needs them. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, just passed in February, Congress has asked for Forest Service help in putting people back to work. Millions of acres are in desperate need of restoration work, partly by removing excess vegetation. The Forest Service has put together an Economic Recovery Program, and we are integrating our woody biomass utilization strategy into it.

One of the greatest challenges facing forest managers in the United States on both public and private land is restoring, maintaining, and enhancing the health and productivity of forest systems. Active management to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests provides local, regional, and national benefits.

Wood-to-Energy Platforms

Forest Service Research and Development has a program for biobased products and bioenergy research and development. The program integrates all aspects of sustainable production and management, harvest and delivery, and conversion and utilization research, from molecular- to global-scale analysis. The program takes into account the supply chain of forest bioenergy and bioproducts, with the goal of ensuring productive, sustainable, efficient, and affordable forest bioenergy systems and options.

From the many sources of available forest feedstocks, a variety of conversion processes can yield a range of biobased products. We have long been able to produce electrical power from biomass, but the revolution in biobased products has given us new opportunities to use woody biomass to produce transportation fuels, chemicals, and other products that have traditionally come from oil. Increasingly, forest landowners as well as workers in forests and mills have new sources of income, with multiplier effects in local communities through ancillary services and tax revenues. For example, a 15-megawatt power plant can support about 65 to 75 local jobs.

Woody biomass utilization could mean nothing less than rural revitalization all across America. One NGO, the Energy Foundation, put it this way: “Biofuels represent an opportunity for a large share of the billions of dollars flowing to the Mideast to instead roll towards the Midwest, South and other farm belts.  When farm fields replace drill fields and agricultural America becomes a net energy exporter, new revenue flows will reach farmers, and biofuels plant owners and workers, and then circulate and multiply throughout the rural economy.”

The bioenergy and biobased products research program at the Forest Service takes an integrated approach to the development of options, strategies, systems, and practices for the sustainable production of forest goods, services, and values. The creation of a sustainable bioindustry producing biofuels and bioproducts on a large scale depends on having:

  • a large, sustainable supply of biomass, with appropriate characteristics at a reasonable cost;
  • cost-effective and efficient processes for converting wood to biofuels, chemicals, and other high-value products; and
  • useful tools for decision-making and policy analysis. 

Our research program is focused on delivering value in all three areas.

Win/Win Solution

In this era of climate change, in this new management environment, we need an integrated approach to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s forests. Woody biomass utilization will be part of that approach. It will help restore forests so Americans can continue to get ecosystem services. It will help ecosystems adapt to climate change while also helping to mitigate climate change. It will help meet the national need for wood products, and it will help liberate us from foreign sources of nonrenewable energy. Woody biomass utilization is a win/win solution for everyone concerned, and we should do everything we can to facilitate it, for the benefit of generations to come.