Welcome to the inaugural post on the Southern Group of State Forester's blog page! This blog will serve as a sounding board for important issues facing Southern forests and the landowners who help establish the South as the "wood basket of the world."
As the executive director of the Southern Group of State Foresters, I hear from state foresters, landowners and industry experts on a daily basis regarding a number of different issues that impact our forested areas throughout the South. Central among these is that one of the greatest challenges across our region is keeping private forests intact and working. Over the past year, I have also heard a great deal of discussion around the South's burgeoning woody biomass market. While these two topics, forest retention and biomass markets, might initially seem to be unconnected, this is far from the case.
The world's seemingly insatiable appetite for energy continues to grow year after year, and everyone from politicians and academics to business leaders and industry experts are looking for renewable and sustainable ways to meet this growing need.
In response, many people are looking to tap into the sustainable resources in forests and fields as a means to create clean, renewable energy as opposed to more conventional fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. Southern forests are contributing in a significant way to this global shift away from fossil fuels, which currently supply over 4 million tons of wood pellets annually to support primarily European renewable energy markets. It's estimated that this number could more than triple to approximately 15 million tons under current policy regimes.
Maintaining and improving access to these biomass markets for Southern stakeholders seems like a no-brainer. Local economies will reap a windfall from a significant boost to the forest products sector. Landowners will be able to generate income from forestry residues and trees gathered from thinning operations which have seen diminishing markets over the past decades from the closure of dozens of pulp and paper mills.
The advantages of a healthy sustainable biomass market aren't strictly limited to economic gains and profits for landowners. One of the critiques of the U.S. biomass industry is that the lack of oversight and standards could possibly lead to over-exploitation of forested areas. This couldn't be further from the truth. Strong forest markets in the South have always incentivized private forest ownership, thus increasing the number of forested acres in the region and expanding the societal and environmental benefits that forests provide. Forest biomass markets fit nicely into this model.
The United States has federal and state legal systems, regulations and programs that combine to promote the sustainable management of its forest resources. This includes the Clean Air and Water acts, the Endangered Species Act, state silvicultural best management practices (BMPs) and logger training programs. In fact, evidence suggests that biomass production improves forest management practices, leading to better forest health and tree growth while helping to mitigate the risks of wildfires and invasive species. Perhaps most importantly, biomass markets create a financial incentive for landowners to keep their working forests, as opposed to converting them to commercial or residential development.
From employment and economic gains to forest management benefits, the South stands to lead the way in creating a sustainable biomass industry that will help fill green energy needs both domestically and abroad. To accomplish this, industries, NGOs, landowners, state forestry agencies and federal officials must work together to develop smart, fact-based policies that promote sustainable forestry and environmental practices. This way, the South will continue to be the "wood basket of the world," and our Southern forests will stay strong and intact.