Years ago, I interviewed a graduate student for a job opening. The bottom of the applicant’s resume said “fluent in Spanish.” So I asked, in Spanish, “where did you learn Spanish?”
The applicant, eyes wide open, hesitated before saying, “well, it’s been a while. I’m a little rusty.”
So I asked, “What else on your resume is not accurate?”
Our team reads research and reporting on issues related to forest sustainability, timber markets and wood bioenergy with the expectation that, at a minimum, facts get checked and context gets provided. Once you start pulling at loose threads, buttons fall to the ground and sweaters unravel. Unfortunately, recent reporting by The Guardian (“US Forests Under Threat as Demand for Wood-Based Biofuels Grows”, 10/21/15) and analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on U.S. forest sustainability and wood bioenergy activities fail basic tests of completeness and accuracy.
Media accounts miss the forest and the trees when covering wood bioenergy markets by, specifically, perpetuating three common errors:
- Failure to provide context.
- Improperly assigning “causal” relationships.
- Errors of fact.
Researchers and analysts also have opportunities to improve the communication of wood bioenergy results. The most basic review of the NRDC report shows the near total absence of peer-reviewable research or real-world context. The messaging indicates the drawbridge is up, the phone lines are down and the door is closed. As a result, the general public’s understanding of wood bioenergy remains incomplete.
Reading the media coverage and NRDC report highlighted the following observations:
- The overall assessment fails to account for the facts on the ground: forests in the US Southeast, over the timeframe covered in these reports, have gained acreage and added volume. In fact, the legacy of forest planting patterns since the 1950s dictate that forest volumes in the South in total will continue to grow for decades no matter what bioenergy markets or housing markets do. The data exists to back this up.
- The pellet export industry in the US is not exploding; in fact, it is stabilizing and leveling due, in part, to policy changes overseas that favor other renewable sources (wind, solar) and that aim to reduce energy costs. More specifically, the industry projections and statistics cited in the NRDC report are dated. For example, it includes wood pellet projects that have already been cancelled or idled.
- Bioenergy markets don’t drive forest management in the US Southeast. They are bottom feeders. While pellet exports have grown, pellet mills account for 4-6% of total pulpwood use in the South. In addition, they simply and unequivocally cannot compete economically with US pulp and paper mills (80% of pulpwood demand in South) for raw material on a head-to-head basis.
- The analysis in the NRDC report considers “protected” lands as those with explicit restrictions on timber harvesting due to the presence of endangered species – this means that these lands (publicly owned or privately owned) cannot have any timber harvesting activity due to federal law in the U.S. “Unprotected” is considered to be any bottomland hardwood that is not strictly (federally) mandated to be completely exempt from timber harvest. The report completely disregards the fact that forests in the U.S. are growing and managed to protect endangered and threatened species and water quality. Forest management must abide by the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, and loggers are required to protect streams, rivers, and roads during timber harvesting practices – and foresters and state representatives monitor timber harvests for compliance.
- Bottomland hardwoods are not a primary source for raw material for pellets or other forest products. Most pellet mills purchase pine feedstocks, and the pellet mills that do purchase hardwood typically utilize hardwood that is harvested alongside pine in a pine harvest.
- The NRDC report has nice maps and pictures.
Overall, the failure of media reports to challenge assumptions leaves us with analysis that not only fails to capture thriving U.S. forest management practices, but also overstates the importance of bioenergy to U.S. wood markets. It’s a small piece of a big pie. The arbitrary and incomplete slicing of the forest turns the elephant into a chicken, providing a contextual implication that misleads and disserves forest owners and policy makers trying to make the best decisions they can.