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Using Every Twig; USDA Sustainable Logging Study to Spur Renewable Energy

Virginia Tech

The world is watching as  the largest rain forest on the planet burns in South America.  Part of the cause is speculators who clear land after it’s been logged, by setting fire to it, sparking wildfires in the process.

In the U.S., leftovers from logging operations are instead, being used to create renewable energy.  A new, 3-year, east coast wide study will explore environmental and economic best practices.

Leftovers from logging are known in the industry as residue-- treetops and twigs, stumps and slash, even small trees, that are not, at first glance, good for much of anything.  They used to be piled and just left behind as waste, but the growing renewable energy industry is increasing demand for these tiny bits. So, the U.S. Department of Agriculture commissioned a 3-year study to determine best practices for reclaiming and reusing them.

Virginia Tech Forestry Professor Chad Bolding is leading the mid- Atlantic portion of the study. He says, at this point, one of the biggest challenges appears to be balancing the high value of cut timber with the costs to reclaim the residues left behind.  “Residues are the lowest value product in the forest, so we can’t let the ‘tail wag the dog’.  We have to minimize the impact on the round wood production, while also gaining the residues at minimal cost and efficiency.”

Austin Garren, a doctoral student in Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, will work with Bolding on the survey. They’ll work collaboratively with Auburn University, the University of Maine, and West Virginia University. Bolding says, “We’re looking at operational strategies and trying to determine what’s actually being done by the industry, what practices could be improved, what is their cost, and we’re evaluating the environmental impacts of those operations to look into the question of sustainability.”

That’s sustainability in terms of wood as a renewable energy source, and the sustainability of forestlands themselves, says Boulding. “So, the more demand we have for forest products, the more likely forests are to stay forests.”

Virginia’s economy is highly dependent on forestry and logging. Already, it contributes some $17 billion to it each year. Bolding says, new markets for these once forgotten logging residues will not only increase the economic value of forests, and keep forest land in demand, it come with this additional benefit: carbon sequestration.  

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.