Photo Credit: Experimental “slash-bundler”, designed by Forest Concepts, is designed to increase slash density to make for easier handling and transport. It might serve as an alternative to a chipper, though costs/benefits and applications need additional testing. Photo by Nick Goulette

Improving the economics of treating fuels to protect communities from wildfire is a daunting task. The National Fire Plan of 2001 marked our first nation-wide attempt at tackling this issue. On a state-by-state and community-by-community basis, folks have been grappling with reducing the costs and increasing the benefits of fuels treatments for even longer. The Cohesive Strategy reinforces this imperative. At their June meeting, members of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network discussed the merit of starting up a Community of Practice (CoP) to share learning across communities and organizations from around the country who have been grappling with improving the economics of fuel treatments.

Fuel treatment economics encompasses the following choices and cost centers to consider: 1) the implementation methods associated with manually or mechanically thinning fuels, 2) disposal of those fuels (chipping, burning, utilization) and 3) the biomass utilization options, if any. Fuel treatment economics, be they for defensible space or broader community protection-focused fuel treatments on the landscape, vary widely across the nation, and even within states and regions. Based upon the types of vegetation present, the steepness of slopes, the proximity to wood utilization markets, disposal centers or population centers, the availability of a qualified workforce, and the landownership patterns and landowner motivation, treatment costs and economic benefits can run in the black, or deep into the red. And then there is always the matter of who pays.

There are a number of prior and ongoing efforts supported by the federal land management agencies, by state forestry and natural resource agencies, and by myriad NGOs and collaborative groups, several worth noting. The USDA Forest Service’s former Economic Action Program, Woody Biomass Utilization Grants, and successor programs such as the Wood Innovation Grants have variously made grants available for innovations and new capacity in biomass harvesting and utilization. The Biomass Crop Assistance Program supports continued delivery of forest biomass to qualifying facilities, including energy production and pellet plants. The US Department of Energy has also made grants in support of biomass utilization. Most recently, the Forest Service has begun investing in Statewide Wood Energy Teams and Wood Action Teams to make more ground on market development. Some states have also created grant programs and financial incentives. These efforts, on top of private sector and community-level innovations and best practices, have modestly improved the outlook in many places and offers hope for the future.

Despite all this investment, treatment costs and lack of local biomass utilization markets persist as widespread and intractable problems for communities across the nation. Achieving economies of scale, both for treatment and utilization, remains a challenge for different reasons in different places. Woody biomass, even where it exists in high density, is costly to cut, collect and transport. At the same time, the imperative remains to work on improving the foundational economics of reducing fuel levels to build and maintain fire adapted communities.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a public field tour for the “Waste to Wisdom” project, a cooperative research effort of Humboldt State University, Oregon State University and several private sector partners. They are investigating a wide range of state-of-the-art and time-tested methods for biomass harvest, conversion and utilization.

Having worked in this sector for over a decade, I was hoping to learn of breakthroughs to bring back and share within the FAC Net and beyond. Alas, I was further struck by the ongoing challenges. It looks like there will be no panacea on the horizon. This should motivate all of us to participate in or follow the work of your Statewide Wood Energy and Action Teams, look out for Waste to Wisdom and other R &D findings, and keep making good on state and federal grants. And we should all continue sharing what we’re learning as we experiment and innovate at home.

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