FAIRBANKS — As energy costs increase in rural Alaska, biomass is being considered as a replacement for diesel fuel to produce heat and electricity in many rural and Bush communities. Other forms of energy also are being evaluated for applicability in various areas of Alaska.
Forest biomass is used to heat the Delta and Tok community schools, and the Tok school is generating some of its own electricity from biomass. Craig and Tanana use biomass to heat their schools and some buildings. They save money using renewable forest resources and use the money they save to benefit their school systems.
Many Alaska homes and businesses heat with firewood, the traditional source of biomass. People depend on a readily available, cost-effective source they can cut themselves or obtain reasonably from local firewood dealers.
In the early 1900s, wood was used to power stern-wheel riverboats on Interior rivers. Thousands of tons of wood were cut along these rivers to provide fuel. Old pictures depict landscapes near riverside communities that were heavily cut for timber to fuel riverboats that carried people and supplies. We can see from those pictures that the land has regrown with thick forests of mature birch, aspen, balsam poplar and white spruce.
Biomass traditionally comes from waste wood created during the production of other wood products. Sawdust, slabs, planer shavings and similar waste can be used to fuel steam-powered boilers that generate heat and electricity. Woody biomass also includes waste construction wood, crating, pallets, recycled paper products, treetops, previously unmarketable Alaska tree species such as aspen and black spruce, and smaller-sized timber encountered when logging traditional wood products.
An abundance of timber in many areas may be suitable for biomass energy production — much of it, including aspen and poor quality spruce, has no other market. Logging marketable timber and leaving only the poorly formed and low-value trees degrades the health and vigor of the timber stand. Local demand for biomass can improve forest health, regenerate the forest to more fire-resistant hardwoods like aspen and provide improved wildlife habitat.
Aspen is considered a key tree species for wildlife that need early stages of forest growth to provide important components of habitat, such as moose browse and cover and food for hares, lynx and grouse. In addition, wildfire moves slower and burns less intensely through aspen than through a stand of spruce, and defensible space protection around homes and communities is more controllable when fire is burning through a stand of aspen than through a stand of conifer spruce. Because aspen regrows profusely from root sprouts after logging or wildfire, prolific regeneration of this hardwood tree species is ensured.
Timber unsuitable for logs or lumber could provide viable, sustainable and renewable forest resources for biomass. Biomass suitable for logging includes trees of poor quality as well as fire- and beetle-killed trees. Harvesting can occur on state, private, Native, military and municipal lands and from land-conversion projects. Changing the forest fuel type from a stand of overgrown and fire-prone spruce to a less fire-prone stand of hardwoods creates defensible space critical for wildfire protection and also provides a source of woody biomass.
Previously, the trees cut for defensible space were piled and burned. All the laws and considerations that go into planning a timber harvest of traditional forest products on state lands apply to harvesting biomass.
Many questions must be answered about additional logging for woody biomass: Is increased harvesting sustainable and renewable? Will it negatively impact water quality, visual aesthetics, wildlife habitat, fisheries, subsistence and sport hunting, recreation, fishing or gathering?
Will increased logging affect wildlife habitat diversity or endangered species? Will more forest harvesting increase wind in the area? Will there be adequate timber for local mills to maintain and increase their businesses? Will there be adequate timber for personal-use firewood and logs or for commercial firewood needed for sale to local residents?
These and other questions will be addressed in the normal public meeting process within the laws and statutes regarding forest management and timber harvest on state lands.
Glen Holt is the eastern Alaska forester for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. Contact him at 474-5271 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.