Column: Dartmouth biomass project would help forests, economy

For the Valley News
Published: 9/12/2019 10:10:16 PM
Modified: 9/12/2019 10:10:06 PM

Dartmouth College’s proposed biomass heating plant has caused great concern regarding its potential health effects. Rather than merely stating that burning wood chips is less detrimental than burning No. 6 bunker oil, Dartmouth should provide the information it has on air quality after the plant’s emissions pass through an electrostatic precipitator or cyclone-and-fabric filer system. And the public should understand that there is no comparison between a household wood stove, especially one prior to catalytic converters, and a modern heating plant.

Many alternative sources of heating have been suggested — solar, wind, water, gas, heat pumps. All have drawbacks. All raise questions.

Solar is only good when the sun shines as there are no batteries yet capable of storing enough power for Dartmouth’s heating needs. How efficient are solar panels when covered with snow? How many acres would have to be cleared of trees for sufficient panels to produce the needed electricity?

The wind is intermittent. Again, no batteries exist to store the needed amount of electricity. How many wind towers would have to surround Hanover?

There is no more developable hydro power on the Connecticut River. Could the college and Dartmouth-Hitchcock buy the Wilder Dam for joint usage? Doubtful for financial reasons, and it is well locked into the New England power grid.

There are no gas pipelines in the area. Gas would have to be delivered by carbon-spewing trucks. Pumping chemicals underground in the fracking process has caused tremors and groundwater contamination plus the release of methane, which is a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Although heat pumps kept the new Moosilauke Ravine Lodge above freezing last winter, engineers would have to figure the feasibility of installing enough heat pumps to heat Dartmouth’s 119 buildings to a comfortable temperature.

Again, if Dartmouth would release the data it collected in its investigation of these options, it would answer many questions.

Coal, oil and gas will never sequester the carbon they produce through burning. Trees growing in the place of those harvested will replace the carbon burned when reaching the same size. Unlike the fossil fuels, trees are a renewable resource when properly managed.

A forest is like a big vegetable garden, only the vegetables are larger and take longer to grow. Trees produce millions of seeds per acre, and just as gardeners have to thin spinach, carrots, beets and lettuce, trees have to be thinned for reasonable growth. There is only so much water, sunlight and soil nutrients. Un-thinned garden rows, and un-thinned trees, compete for these limited resources. Eventually, some will dominate and the others will die.

To maximize the benefits of our forests — storing carbon, producing oxygen, storing water, controlling erosion, providing recreation and wildlife habitat — forest management should be practiced under the guidance of a professional consulting forester. Just as we use the expertise of doctors, dentists, lawyers and accountants, forest landowners should use the expertise of licensed consulting foresters for guidance in the complexities of good forest management.

Germany was a pioneer in forest management, and it was from there that early American forest management derived. Around 1900, Germany feared that centuries of cutting wood was depleting its forests, so it started planting trees. These plantations — of the same species of trees, all of the same age — turned out to be susceptible to disease and wind throw. Germany now stresses a variety of species and a variety of age classes so no one disease decimates the landscape and wind can dissipate around trees of varied heights.

Locally, Hanover’s Pine Park is an example of what happens when trees of the same species and of a similar age are allowed to grow insufficiently thinned: Crown closure shuts out sunlight to the forest floor, resulting in easy walking and a cathedral-like appearance, but the lack of sunlight inhibits any new growth. When the white pine needle cast fungus hit the stand and killed many trees, there was no regeneration to replace those killed.

A managed forest with a variety of species and a variety of age classes provides a variety of habitats for wildlife, from ground-nesting oven birds to tree-top nesting goshawks, from honey-making bees to omnivorous bears. A closed-canopy, mature forest with no undergrowth provides few hiding places and little food. It is a biological desert.

On a percentage basis, New Hampshire is the second-most forested state in the nation (Maine is first) and Vermont is a close fourth after West Virginia. The Twin States are growing more wood than is being harvested. Also, Dartmouth would be in a position to control, by contract, how the biomass is harvested, so there is little chance that clear-cutting of the kind portrayed in the film Burned: Are Trees the New Coal? could occur.

Depending on how it has been managed, the average local forest contains between two-thirds and three-quarters low-grade wood. This low-grade wood was once turned into pulp for paper, but today’s electronic communications have destroyed the pulp market. Five paper plants went out of business in Maine in the last few years.

Biomass is a low-paying substitute for the pulp market. Landowners and loggers are not going to turn good trees into chips for pennies when they can get dollars for higher-value uses. The cost of trucking, especially beyond 50 miles, means there is little left to entice landowners to thin their trees. This leads to “cut the best and leave the rest” as the only profitable alternative. This degrades the forest. Although this practice has been partially reversed in both states recently by current use programs, which require forest management, it would be a tragedy if the lack of a market for low-grade wood sets this progress back.

All forestland is owned. For some it is a part of a house lot, regardless of how large. For others it is an investment that must be profitable in order to pay the mortgage and property taxes and make a return on that investment.

Wood markets are essential. They provide returns to the landowner and jobs for loggers, truckers, sawmills and secondary wood processors. They circulate money in our area.

Put Blodgett, of Hanover, has long been involved in forestry. He is the president of the Vermont Woodlands Association and has been twice named Vermont’s Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year.

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