Once seen as waste, Minnesota forest materials find a market

A logging operation near Baudette, Minn., circa 1900.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
A logging operation near Baudette, Minn., circa 1900.

Branches, bark and other woody leftovers from cut trees have been piling up for nearly all the 18 years that Dale Erickson has run his timber-products business in Baudette, Minn.

And now all those piles have been bought up by a power company to be used as fuel to make electricity for a papermaking mill in Ft. Frances, Ont., across the Rainy River from International Falls.

Erickson suddenly has a market for what once was accumulated “waste.” It’s yet another sign of how slash residues from logging operations — and even standing trees — are increasingly being seen as a fuel source, something that was little considered just a few years ago as most of the state’s timber went, as it still goes, for papermaking and building materials.

“Some may call it waste, but it’s not,” said Dave Zumeta of the Minnesota Forest Resources Council (MFRC). “It’s always been an energy source, but it now has economic value,” he said, referring to limbs, branches and bark trimmed from main-stem trunks of the roughly 3.5 million cords of wood annually hauled out Minnesota’s timberland.

Piled up — or left in the woods
Except for sawdust and other wood residue that’s regularly used for heat energy at timbering operations, the excess slash is piled up at places like Erickson Timber Products or, mostly, trimmed from trees by loggers and left to decay in the woods. But it’s now valued as an energy source by companies seeking alternatives to burning coal and natural gas, providing a new and growing market for timber companies. 

Wood is already being burned to generate steam and electricity at large-scale plants in Grand Rapids, Duluth, and Little Falls, and it soon will be at new and expanded plants at Hoyt Lakes and a consortium energy plant for Virginia and Hibbing. At Mountain Iron, Minn., Mountain Timber is advancing the first of at least two plants to produce large quantities of wood pellets for burning in industrial steam boilers and, even, home-heating stoves.

The buzz throughout forest country is that the planning horizon includes several large “woody biomass” plants that would produce energy for steam heat and electricity, to wood pellets, and converted to gas and, even, ethanol.

That may be welcome news for out-of-work loggers suffering through a severely depressed housing market that has driven down demand for building materials and has seen the closure of production plants in Cook, Grand Rapids and Deerwood.

Questions accompany change
But like any upstart seeking to fit into something like Minnesota’s tradition-steeped timber industry, the wood-for-fuel industry is bringing with it a long list of knotty questions that easily outpace answers, and opportunity that’s encircled by potential conflict.

Discussions aimed at sorting through the maze of questions are underway at the MFRC, among industry associations like Minnesota Forest Industries, among environmental including the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) and Sierra Club, and among state agencies including the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). 

A recent legislative informational hearing on a state “low carbon fuel standard” was diverted for a time to a discussion about the emerging wood-for-fuel industry. At the hearing, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, wondered aloud whether the woody biomass industry may provoke conflicts similar to those beginning to bedevil the corn-ethanol industry.

The Blandin Foundation of Grand Rapids recently convened a stakeholders meeting in Eveleth as the first in a continuing series of sessions planned over the next year to help guide growth of a renewable fuels industry. Bernadine Joselyn, the foundation’s director of public policy and engagement said several of those at the Eveleth meeting will be part of a delegation that will tour Finland and Sweden this fall to examine how those nations are successfully addressing a range of issues related to converting wood to energy. 

“Minnesotans care a lot about their woods,” Joselyn said, “and everyone wants to do this right.”

Guidelines for harvesting developed
For its part, MFRC has developed nation-leading guidelines for harvesting biomass that include,  Zumeta said, that up to a third of tree slash be left in the woods to provide nutrient-regeneration of soils, wildlife habitat, ecosystem diversity, and protection of streams and wetlands.

The MFRC has also begun a $300,000 legislatively-supported research study on the broader ecological effects of harvesting woody biomass for energy. 

In the web of resource-supply issues are whether wood types harvested for biomass energy may compete for tree species coveted by papermakers and building materials suppliers.

Already, the wood-supply issue has provoked some controversy. Earlier this year, the MPCA weighed a proposal by a renewable-fuels company to build and operate a massive plant in the Duluth Harbor to annually produce 500,000 tons of wood pellets for European power plants.

The company, Kedco of Cork, Ireland, planned to harvest 1.2 million tons of wood within 60 miles of Duluth, and that drew the attention of Minnesota Forest Industries. Its executive vice president, Wayne Brandt, paid a visit to MPCA Commissioner Brad Moore to express concern about the plan over the issue of competing for the same trees sought by the pulp industry.  

Moore later informed Kedco that its plan must go through a costly and time-consuming full environmental review. Moore, who spent a number of years in forestry issues at DNR before taking over as MPCA chief, said state rules left him no choice but to order an environmental review of the massive project. Still, company officials were openly angry by the decision and said it’s unlikely they’ll proceed with plans to build in Minnesota.

Proposal draws criticism and caution
Another wood-pellet plant proposed by the Mountain Timber Products of Mountain Iron, Minn., has drawn criticism from two environmental-advocacy groups and caution from the DNR, and how the company fares in MPCA’s environmental review underway may determine how other biomass plants are viewed by state regulators. 

Unlike the Kedco project that would harvest standing timber, Mountain Timber would utilize as much wood residue (slash) as it could collect within 120 miles of its plant. Still, a significant amount of the wood would be cut from stands of Tamarac and Black Spruce in sensitive bogs and “underutilized” trees like ash, large birch and basswood. 

Both the Sierra Club and MCEA have warned that the Mountain Timber plan to cut wood for burning would release tons of carbon in conflict with the state’s policy to reduce carbon gasses linked to climate change. 

MCEA’s Matt Norton, a forestry advocate and lawyer, said that forests are major carbon storehouses and that in reviewing projects like Mountain Timber the state must weigh greenhouse-gas emissions as required by the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act. 

The issue of converting wood for fuel was given impetus in a report by the Climate Change Advisory Group that was appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty to recommend ways to meet ambitious carbon-reduction targets of the Next Gen law. The report referenced the carbon-storing (“sequestration”) benefits of forests, while also noting that using wood for fuel could reduce carbon emissions if wood replaces coal for energy.

“It will take a long time to understand all this,” said Steve Betzler of Duluth-based Minnesota Power, a company that already utilizes wood slash for energy production. “How big this (the woody biomass industry) will get is something we don’t know, but it will grow.”

Ron Way, a former reporter for several Midwest newspapers, covers the environment and energy issues. He can be reached at rway [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by James Nordgaard on 05/06/2008 - 12:16 pm.

    I’m glad that at least the guidelines recommend one third of the “waste” be left in the woods as nutrients. Still, I’m very dismayed at the primitive state of thinking of most forestry people who still consider anything left in the forest is waste. Nature doesn’t waste anything.

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