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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Natural and Unnatural Constraints on the Forest Resource

If you read my opening post on this topic, you'll recall that Pennsylvania has more wood in its forest now than at any time in the last 100 or more years, despite its "heavy use". And that the US Forest Service projects that the forest volume could increase by as much as 50% more by the year 2050.

Now if you're really old, say a hundred and twenty, you can remember when much of Pennsylvania was cut over and looked like this scene of Oil City, PA in 1910.

As the cities of the country grew and settlements expanded, most of the wood that was growing out there was needed to meet the apparently insatiable appetite for wood that these growing communities required. But the expansion itself, caused in no small part by the development of raw material markets such as oil, contained the seeds of a decreasing demand for wood. The scarcity of wood itself and the resulting higher prices for it caused opportunistic Americans to seek cheaper alternatives, and as these industries grew, the voracious consumption of wood began to decline. This trend, which I call a natural (or market) constraint on the harvesting of the forest resource, has continued on to this day.

And all the while consumption of wood was declining (our commenter Jonathan gave us a good analysis of this phenomenon), the forest rebounded strongly on the strength of the vitality of our temperate climate and rich soils. For most of the last century, the rise in productivity of the lumber and paper industries kept pace with the growth of the forest. But gradually, and especially in the post WWII decades, much of this American industry began to move to other countries, and the demand for our timber began to fall further behind its use.

The reason these wood industries moved on, simply put, is the free market nature of our economic system. U.S. companies were free to seek cheaper feedstock for their plants, and eventually, it became cheaper to move the plants to other countries than to bring the feedstock to the plant. The reasons our timber became more expensive than other countries are many and could be the subject of a book, but suffice here to say that we have some of the most expensive timber in the world, even though the demand for it is lagging further and further behind the growth (in many parts of the country, the growth rate of the forest is three times or more than the harvest of it.)

These reasons are mostly related to government regulation and confiscation, which I call unnatural constraints on the harvest of our forest. (Others, however, would call these natural social constraints...I agree that they are natural, in a socialist society.) These unnatural or socialist constraints, in combination with the natural, capitalistic constraints of the free market, have created a condition that I believe is a national disgrace...the poor stewardship of our forests, which limits the harvest of our natural forests to high-grading for lumber that leaves an inferior, denser, less robust forest in its wake, and often leads to the huge wildfires we have been experiencing since this trend began.

Now government in its wisdom is creating an unnatural demand for a resource that is unnaturally constrained, in biomass feedstock subsidies and energy taxes in the form of carbon credits deriving from their desire to attain artificial policy objectives. These actions will increase the price of fossil fuels coal, natural gas, and oil, which in turn will increase the price of the very feedstock they are trying to promote, since timber harvesting costs are greatly impacted by gasoline and diesel prices.

Naturally, then, the success of the "incentive" programs will be limited. Taxpayers will help build large, wide-area, high production facilities that would not be economically viable unless they are subsidized, and eventually, when the subsidies are eliminated, the facilities will no longer be profitable and will be closed by the companies...and the stated objective of transitioning to alternative energy sources will become a dream dearly lost.

Unless, we take the road less traveled, and promote small, local, efficient biomass projects.

Darn, I started the GoWood blog to keep it light and enjoyable. Failed miserably in this post. I'll switch gears for a while. :-)


Anonymous said...

Hi Chuck,

I just read all your blogs. Keep up the good work.

I burn wood to heat my house too. I gather, cut, hydraulicly split, stack, haul it into the house and up the stairs to the fireplace insert and burn it. I have to take the ashes out everyday to prevent the stove from filling up with ashes and charcoal. I've been saving the charcoal with the hope of figuring out some way of burning it. All this work takes up a lot of my life. I do it because I can't afford the cost of heating with electricity. I bought into the all electric home back in the seventies when I had my house built. What a waste, heating with electricity!. I'm 68, burning wood sounds romantic until you do it for a of couple of years. But I still get the self satisfaction of doing it.

I live in Lower Saucon Township, PA. south of Bethlehem. We have beautiful hills of 800 ft. elevation. Much of our hills are covered with woods. We are lucky if we have a woods that is greater than 20 acres befor it is interupted with a residence or a farm field or road. When you talk about harvesting a forest it makes people around here get excited about making money by harvesting their small woods. I know one person who did it and after he saw how it ruined the woods he used to hunt and hike in, he wished he hadn't done it. When you and other foresters talk about harvesting our wood resouces, I wish you would discuss the size of the woods your are referring to. I enjoy the beauty of the wooded hills we have and I don't want to wait many years until the trees cover the hills again after the tree are harvested.

Are you involved with Fuels for Schools and Beyond?


Chuck said...

Thanks for the nice comment, Allan. I just finished hauling some more wood, myself, and I feel your pain. Gave me an idea for the next post.

Here's a tip on that charcoal...try leaving the ash in longer - maybe only clean out the stove about once a week. That way the charcoal will keep burning until it turns to ash, and you get a more complete combustion of your firewood. I know, it looks like the stove will fill up, but it doesn't. Every couple of days, I go in with the stove shovel, scoop up a few shovelfuls right off the bottom, and shake off the charcoal in the stove, pulling out just the bottom layer of ash. By the time I turn to get a new piece of wood, the charcoal is giving off a nice blue flame, which is as hot and complete combustion as you can get in the stove. And the stove is much more efficient with an inch or so of ash in the bottom than with cold, clean metal.

You do live in a beautiful area. You're right, harvesting small farm plots is a much finer art than industrial harvesting usually employs. There are ways to make nice, sustainable harvests on 20 acres, but they require a different mindset by the landowner and forester. Tell them the best way to make money on a small farm plot is to use it locally, either for heating the farm or the neighbors' houses. Firewood cuts can be done and you'll never notice anything but a nicer view through the woods. And that can be done forever.

I serve as an occasional resource for the FFS&B group. They are a fine bunch of folks and represent a lot of collective knowledge. More importantly, they represent the right vision...small to mid-size local energy projects.