The sustainable management of forests for wood products is a significant part of the Forest Society’s purpose for owning and managing conservation land. The Forest Society supports public policy initiatives, which promote the wise use of forests, including the harvesting of low-grade wood for energy.
Sustainable forest management can (and should) increase the age and species diversity of our forests, two important indicators of forest resilience. It serves other land management goals, including the creation of wildlife habitats, maintenance of biodiversity, promotion of recreational opportunities, and protection of clean water. Our ultimate goal is to keep forests as forests.
The wood products industry is New Hampshire’s third-largest commercial enterprise. Markets for all grades of wood are essential to the practice of sustainable forestry. On Forest Society land, about seventy percent of the standing timber is “low grade,” which means it is not suitable for sale as saw logs to a commercial sawmill that makes lumber. When paper mills were flourishing in northern New England much of this low-grade wood was sold to pulp and paper mills. Over the past five years, approximately forty percent of low-grade wood harvested in New Hampshire has been sold to electric generating stations that use biomass for fuel. The rest is sold as pulp wood to the remaining paper mills in northern New England and as cordwood, wood pellets or chips for heating of homes and businesses.
The majority of State Legislators share our view that using low-grade wood to generate heat and electricity has societal benefits. During recent legislative sessions, bills were passed to provide subsidies for wood energy, specifically to generating stations using wood to create electricity. Governor Sununu repeatedly vetoed legislation providing these subsidies on grounds that the subsidies provided were unfair to electric ratepayers, though he did allow one subsidy bill to pass. The bill that passed benefited the Burgess Power plant in Berlin, which has a long-term contract to sell power to Eversource.
Using wood to generate electricity is less efficient (per unit of energy generated) than using wood to generate thermal energy. Whether we use wood for electricity, for heat, or both, if we want to keep forests as forests in New Hampshire, we need sustainable markets for low-grade wood. And we need to sustain those who work in the woods to provide the labor necessary to move wood of all grades to markets.
Unfortunately, the Legislature was unable to override Governor Sununu’s most recent veto of a bill (HB 183) in 2019 to sustain subsidies for six smaller wood electricity generating stations. The result was the closure of two of the six plants, with the other four likely to shut down soon. There likely will be future opportunities for low-grade wood to be used for things other than burning it for electricity, but now, and for the foreseeable future, there are no readily available markets to replace the volume of low-grade wood these plants have been purchasing.
As a state, we should be building new bridges to future low-grade wood markets before we tear existing bridges down. The Forest Society is committed to working with policymakers to seek new markets for low-grade wood, to keep forests as forests and to keep sustainably managed forests as vibrant economic assets.