- by Julia Waite
March 16, 2012: Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced a bill into the U.S. House of Representatives to initiate a large-scale sell off of federally owned lands in the western United States. Colorado, Wyoming and Montana are among the ten states implicated under H.R. 1126, the “Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2011,” which calls upon the Secretary of the Interior to direct the sale of 3.3 million acres of land identified as suitable for “disposal” or “other purposes,” including Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, one-quarter of which are forested.
In a revenue-raising effort by the government, tracts will be sold to private investors on the competitive market. This relinquishment of federally owned land presents itself as a valuable opportunity for the timber and biomass industries. Lumber, furniture, and paper manufacturing industries all seek to benefit, but what is generating concern among some observers, as the bill enters the House Natural Resources Subcommittee, is that the sale presents a huge opportunity for the biomass industry.
A major limiting factor for biofuels in becoming an economically viable producer of electricity has been the availability of wood. “Obtaining a consistent supply of woody biomass from federal lands is one of the primary impediments to developing a biomass utilization sector,” according to biomass proponent Sustainable Northwest. The speculation that House and Senate versions of a policy that would amend the Waxman-Markey energy bill to allow biomass from federal lands to qualify as “renewable” feedstock for biofuels production similarly threatens to increase logging for biomass.
Biomass opponents challenge the rhetoric of benevolence by government that private stewardship is needed to manage the fire risks that “threaten” forests. In 2003, the so-called Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) was passed into law with a priority purpose to “reduce wildfire risks to communities.” Under the guise of fire protection, the government has essentially been priming its federally owned lands for exploitation by the biomass industry. The potential for industry profit is double because, in addition to purchasing the land rights to cut and burn biomass in the future, the trees felled during the “thinning” process can also be sold for fuel chipping.
Home ignitability, rather than forests fuels, is the principal cause of home losses during wild land/urban interface fires. Recent science demonstrates that large wildfires are more often a product of drought and low humidity, than fuel levels. If conditions are ripe, especially with high winds, thinning doesn’t necessarily stop big wildfires, and it might actually make things worse. Thinning a forest opens it up to sunlight, which dries the forest and also exposes it to winds, which can hasten the spread of flames during wildfires
So what is the effect of these regulations that would sell off federal lands? At best, it adds yet another layer of human interference with the natural cycle of decomposition and regeneration. At worst, it can be perceived as a concerted effort by government to further prime public lands for sale to the timber and biomass industries.
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