Our biomass policy subsidizes clear-cuts

It’s rewarding the chipping and burning of our future sawlogs and condemning Coos County to further poverty

Geoffrey Jones’ letter on NHBR.com calling for overriding Governor Sununu’s veto of Senate Bill 365 includes the statement, “one very important and irrefutable fact: The energy source with the smallest negative footprint AND the most societal benefits, when practiced intelligently and responsibly, is biomass!”

He offers no supporting evidence.

Note his qualifier: “when practiced intelligently and responsibly.” Up in Coos County, absentee landowners, using expensive heavy machinery, are liquidating hundreds of acres of young forests, largely to feed the inefficient 75-megawatt Burgess biomass plant in Berlin. Sununu recently signed SB 577, which forces Eversource ratepayers to subsidize Burgess for at least another three years — on top of the $100 million we have forked over since Burgess opened in 2013.

The satellite photo (available from the NHGranit granit.unh.edu/) shows a clear-cut of several hundred acres conducted by Wagner Woodlands on behalf of Yale University Endowment. It is neither intelligent nor responsible forest policy when a vaunted university can legally liquidate previously overcut stands — and receive ratepayer subsidies!

Mr. Jones estimated that in the 1980s, 60 to 80 percent of the value harvested in New Hampshire was in low-value wood. In Coos, unregulated high-grading, clear-cutting, and misguided salvage logging are leading causes of this problem.

He adds: “As low-grade trees are removed from our forests they increase the proportion of high-quality, high-value sawlog trees.” After three decades of removing this low-economic-value wood, the problem persists. Isn’t 30 years long enough for a failed experiment that has — at least in Coos County — exacerbated, not alleviated, the problem?

Ecologist Craig Lorimer has estimated that 59 percent of the pre-settlement forests of northeastern Maine were greater than 150 years of age, and 27 percent were more than 300 years old. The all-aged, pre-settlement forests of Coos County also boasted a preponderance of mature and old trees. Today, except on public lands, there are few large forest stands dominated by trees older than a century.

It is disconcerting that the timber lobby and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests continue to push for subsidies to those parties most responsible for the ongoing crisis. It is shocking that they continue to gloss over the liquidation cuts that are vacuum-cleaning our Coos forests, releasing massive amounts of carbon from above-ground biomass (trees) and soils (where half the carbon sequestered in a forest is captured). When will we act to protect New Hampshire’s forests? 

Burning biomass and intensive logging release carbon into the atmosphere immediately. It requires 40 to 150 years to recapture carbon released by intensive whole-tree harvest operations. Until then, these subsidized clear-cuts are carbon sources.

Climate scientists warn that all sources of carbon emissions should be avoided for at least 50 years. Forest researchers Nunery and Keeton found that unmanaged forests sequester 39 to 118 percent more carbon than any managed forest stands, even well-managed stands.

Supporters of SBs 365 and 577 claim ratepayer subsidies are essential for continued economic prosperity. Most of the subsidy money will be pocketed by absentee owners of the Burgess biomass plant, absentee owners of former paper company lands, and heavy machinery manufacturers. Those funds will not recirculate in local economies, and the low-value wood crisis will worsen. 

Coos County is still reeling from the closing of the Berlin and Groveton paper mills over a decade ago. Our economic future depends upon escaping low-value, commodity wood markets (especially biomass), and growing high-value sawlogs so that we can support a diverse array of locally owned, value-added, niche wood manufacturing operations. Subsidies for biomass are rewarding the chipping and burning of our future sawlogs and condemning Coos to further ecological and economic poverty.

Let’s redirect the misguided subsidies of SBs 365 and 577 to achieve results that will sustain the health of our local natural and human communities:

 • Funds for marketing co-ops and local entrepreneurs to start up, expand, or market small and mid-sized, niche, value-added wood products manufacturing capacity

 • Funds to help train loggers in genuine low-impact forestry

• Carbon credits for landowners who manage for increased carbon sequestration (with stiff penalties for recipients who release carbon through intensive cutting). Carbon sequestration may be the most valuable woods product.

And, at long last, those who purport to protect New Hampshire forests must spearhead a successful, popular campaign to regulate forest practices that degrade ecosystem integrity and exacerbate climate change.

Jamie Sayen of Stratford is the author of, “You Had a Job for Life,” an oral history of the Groveton paper mill.

Categories: Opinion