Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Here's a Bad Idea: Gas From Trees

Here's a Bad Idea: Gas From Trees

By Josh Schlossberg

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Industry lapdog. Dishonest shill. Shameless profiteer. These are some of the names I've heard people call Martin Jack Desmond after his April 20 guest viewpoint pushing cellulosic ethanol as a solution to the rising cost and dwindling supply of gasoline.

But I'm going to give Desmond the benefit of the doubt: I'm willing to believe he really thinks he's doing a good thing. Of course, doctors in the 1950s also thought they were doing a good thing when they prescribed thalidomide to pregnant women.

As former director of the Northwest Reforestation Contractors Association, which has profited from the conversion of natural forests to industrial fiber farms, Desmond is in no position to tell us what's good for Oregon's forests; a circumstance best summed up by Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Whether he realizes it or not, Desmond has become a soldier of Big Timber, which - having conquered all but the last islands of old growth - has declared woody biomass as the new frontier of forest liquidation.

Already, Weyerhaeuser and Chevron have joined forces to develop "treecell technology" to manufacture cellulosic ethanol. As you read this, ethanol factories are popping up across the United States like gaping mouths hungry for a constant supply of forest. And, conveniently, just when industry develops the technology to exploit even the smallest tree for profit, the Forest Service announces that "more than half of Oregon's 29.7 million acres of forest lands" are overgrown and in need of "thinning" to keep down fire risk. What a coincidence!

While science suggests that densely planted tree farms and some fire suppressed forests in the Southwest are likely to burn hotter than natural forests, the fire suppression argument is of little relevance to Oregon's healthy native stands. Historically, much of Oregon's forests have gone centuries between rejuvenating wildfires. Industrial fire suppression has been around for only about 50 years - leaving these forests well within their natural fire cycle and in no need of "fixing."

Of course this hasn't stopped Desmond's Biomass Study Group from eyeing our rainforests as feed stocks.

The truth is, thinning can't even reduce the risk of severe fire, as demonstrated by ecologist George Wuerthner's observations of 2002's Biscuit fire: "Many of the low-density, widely spaced Jeffrey pine growing on serpentine burned up even though their natural stand density is much lower than what you are left with under even aggressive thinning." When drought, high temperatures, low humidity and wind combine - which we're seeing more of with climate change - a fire's going to burn, no matter how many stumps are in its way.

What's more is that science, such as Pacific River Council's "Watershed Impacts of Forest Treatments to Control Wildfire," demonstrates that thinning (or any form of logging, really) can worsen the risk of fire by increasing sunlight, which dries fuels, and by allowing more wind to enter a stand, which hastens the spread of fire.

And the ecological impacts of thinning? What Desmond flippantly calls "excess biomass" belongs in the forest as a source of future soil nutrients. And despite the benign-sounding name, thinning still creates much the same carnage as clear-cutting: landscape-wide tree removal; erosion and siltation of waterways from road construction and use; and soil compaction from heavy machinery.

Even if the overwhelming evidence - and common sense - doesn't convince Desmond that thinning in native forests is a bad idea, does he honestly think that cellulosic ethanol's microscopic contribution could somehow extend our consumptive driving habits any more than a few years? Instead of wasting time, energy and resources trying to concoct a "green gasoline" (no such thing!), let's increase corporate average fuel economy standards to 50 miles per gallon or lower the speed limit to 55 and save more gas than we could ever squeeze from the Northwest's forests.

Sooner or later we're going to have to break our worst transportation habits by using more trains instead of planes, and more bikes and buses instead of cars. And if we're really serious about addressing fossil fuel dependence, we'll need to commit to fundamental changes, such as designing greener, more livable cities so fewer people will need to commute to and from suburbs, and cut back on the shipping of food and other products by localizing production.

In his heart of hearts, I know Desmond understands that an appropriate response to peak oil can't include further sacrificing the forests that give us our air and water, our soil and climate. With climate change threatening life as we know it, we're all trying to figure out what to do. But one thing's for damned sure: whatever you do, don't make it worse.

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