Strategy to Confront Wildfire Crisis Will Help Develop New Wood Markets

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Forest Service Chief Randy Moore recently launched a response to the nation’s growing wildfire crisis – “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A 10-Year Implementation Plan.” The comprehensive strategy outlines the need to significantly increase fuels and forest health treatments to address the escalating crisis of wildfire danger that threatens millions of acres and numerous communities across the United States.

The strategy calls for an unprecedented paradigm shift in land management to increase forest health across jurisdictions that will better match the scale of wildfire risk to people, communities, and natural resources — especially in the Western US. Over a period of 10 years, the proposed strategy calls for:

  • Treating up to an additional 20 million acres on the National Forest System in the West, over and above current treatment levels
  • Treating up to an additional 30 million acres on other Federal, State, Tribal, and private lands in the West
  • Developing a plan for long-term maintenance beyond the 10 years

These figures represent a significant increase in active forest management; the Forest Service noted that it typically treats between 2-3 million acres annually across the entire nation.

Of course, a proactive change in forest management at this scale will also require a massive change in funding. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill that was signed by President Biden last November authorized nearly $2.5 billion for tackling fuels-related projects over the next five years, including:

  • $20mm for data management for fuels projects and large fires
  • $100mm for pre-fire planning and training for wildland firefighting and vegetation treatments
  • $500mm for mechanical thinning, timber harvesting, pre-commercial thinning
  • $500mm for wildfire defense grants for at risk communities
  • $500mm for prescribed burns
  • $500mm for constructing fuel breaks
  • $200mm for removing fuels, producing biochar and other innovative wood products
  • $200mm for post-fire restoration

“The negative impacts of today’s largest wildfires far outpace the scale of efforts to protect homes, communities and natural resources,” said Vilsack. “Our experts expect the trend will only worsen with the effects of a changing climate, so working together toward common goals across boundaries and jurisdictions is essential to the future of these landscapes and the people who live there.”

Incremental Progress

By any measure, these developments are a net positive for America’s forests and its forest products industry. Positive for forest landowners, wood products manufacturers, pulp and paper producers, bioenergy and biofuels developers, and anyone participating at any level of the forest value chain.

Wildfires have gotten so severe in the Western US that they are now emitting greenhouse gasses at a rate equivalent to 48 cars per acre. But predictably, lawmakers can’t agree on the causes of today’s megafires, let alone the solutions. Is it climate change? Is it forest mismanagement? Framing this issue as an “either/or” choice does a disservice to us all when the real question is this: “What can we do now to mitigate further damage?”

As Forest2Market has repeatedly written, America’s forest value chain has the ability to reduce fuels and increase forest health through active forest management and the creation of new markets for low-value wood products. California alone has more than 130 million standing dead trees in its forests. With such a fuel load, we know that fires are now hotter, larger, and more destructive than they would otherwise be. As a result, millions of acres of timberland now burn needlessly every year in western states, which also releases millions of tons of contaminants and sequestered carbon into the atmosphere.

Thankfully, the new Implementation Plan includes a vision for creating and nurturing new markets for the low-value timber that will be removed during thinnings and forest health treatments. “In years 3 to 10 and beyond, we will work to create and sustain the conditions needed to reduce wildfire risk by restoring and maintaining healthy, resilient fire-adapted forests and investing in communities across the West.”

One of these investments includes increased smallwood and biomass utilization. The Plan adds: “The Nation needs to supplement public investments in fuels and forest health treatments through markets for biomass and small-diameter materials removed during mechanical thinning. Support for wood products innovation, biochar, and other options for transporting and using the material will be important.

We couldn’t agree more.

Indeed, California alone currently spends $1.2 billion annually for fire prevention and suppression. Even if just a small portion of that budget were redirected to support economically feasible, long-term biomass power purchase agreements, there could be a resurgence in renewable biomass power generation that would also benefit the state’s overcrowded forests. One GW of biomass-based power generation would convert approximately 10 million tons of low-value biomass each year to renewable power—low-value wood fiber that otherwise may end up adding carbon back into the atmosphere as decaying timber or fuel for wildfires.

The reality is that our federal and state land management agencies are now years—if not decades—behind the eight ball in many cases when it comes to managing the dangerous conditions that now threaten western forests and their surrounding communities. It’s high time our elected officials accept this reality and pass legislation sufficient to materially impact the threats to these ecosystems and communities. To that end, the new 10-Year Plan is welcomed progress for those close to America’s forest resources.