Sustainable Victor on Capitol Hill

The hardwood forest product sector and the entire biomass value chain won a considerable policy victory recently when President Trump signed legislation to keep the government funded through September. A long sought-after provision that provides federal government recognition of the carbon neutral and renewable nature of forest-based biomass fuels was tucked into this spending measure and is now federal law.

This victory is the culmination of years of work by the Hardwood Federation and its allies in the fight to promote the carbon neutrality of biomass. Hundreds of meetings were held and phone calls made to members of Congress and their staffs, Cabinet members, and administration officials of at least three Presidents. Some of our allies even reached out to state-level government officials. So why are we so committed to this concept of biomass carbon neutrality and codifying it at the federal level? In short, because it resides at the very heart of the wood products industry’s sustainability message and it is a principle that is increasingly under attack from anti-forestry activists.

The Hardwood Federation’s ongoing education efforts with policymakers about the environmental benefits of forest products operations emphasize the fact that timber arriving at lumber mills represents one step in a larger “carbon cycling” process. Trees are harvested and efficiently converted into floors, millwork, and cabinets at mills that, once installed in homes and commercial buildings, will store the carbon embedded in that wood product for generations. Parts of the tree that are not fit for making wood products like bark, chip, and sawdust are combusted for energy recovery, typically in the form of heat and power at lumber facilities or sold to pellet producers or other end-users.

At the point where forest biomass is combusted for energy, carbon that had been siphoned from the atmosphere and stored in the tree fiber through the duration of its growing years is released to the atmosphere. But what separates wood products’ processes from industries that rely on fossil-derived materials like oil, gas, or coal is that the thriving, sustainable forests from which raw materials are sourced continue the carbon uptake cycle in a virtual loop. In other words, wood product production does not introduce “new” carbon into the atmosphere as fossil fuel combustion does. That’s why we like to describe it as “carbon cycling.”

The cog that makes this entire cycle work – and what distinguishes forest energy from fossil energy – is the renewability of the raw material. And that is another reason why this language that we helped secure in the spending bill is so important. Not only did it codify biomass as carbon neutral, but it also stipulates that forest-based biomass energy is “renewable.”

Until recently, we had assumed this was a principle that was beyond dispute. However, over the past year or so, many opponents to timber harvesting began making claims that forest-based biomass is a nonrenewable resource. Many outside the wood products industry are unaware of – or refuse to acknowledge – the fact that robust markets for forest products actually promote the health of the nation’s forest resources. The beautiful and long-lived wood products, including flooring produced by the industry, provide critical demand for working forests so that landowners managing those forests can continue to keep those lands as forest lands.

A little-known fact is that most of the forest land in this country is privately owned in parcels that average well under 500 acres. These small, private landowner suppliers depend on a return on investment to keep their holdings forested and not convert them to other uses like row crop agriculture or development. Thriving markets for forest products are the primary reason there are more forested acres in this country today than in the 1950s – a time period during which the country experienced an unprecedented postwar home building spree.

Unfortunately, bumper sticker messaging around saving trees by not using wood is the narrative that has prevailed among many, and it is a myth we continue to debunk on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch. But our recent win feels like progress and a major victory for our sustainability message. Both Republicans and Democrats supported the language, many of whom members of the NWFA visited during the Hardwood Federation Fly-In to Washington, D.C. We are hopeful we can continue this progress with additional policy victories in 2017 on some of our other, critical policy priorities like federal forest management reform and legislation to promote more wood use in tall buildings. As always, we will look again to engage all of you in those efforts and help us spread the word about the economic and environmental benefits the wood products industry brings to local communities and the nation.

Dana Cole is Executive Director at the Hardwood Federation, a Washington D.C.–based hardwood industry trade association that represents thousands of hardwood businesses in every state in the U.S. and acts as the industry’s advocacy voice on Capitol Hill. She can be reached at dana.cole@hardwoodfederation.com.

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