Not So Bio-Fast

Back on a pleasant Sunday in December, on vacation, I decided at the last minute to attend a biomass gathering that drew quite a crowd to Bernardston’s historic Unitarian Church. I was curious, wanted to meet the players, inconspicuously work the floor, so to speak, perhaps eat a cookie in passing, kill time before the Patriots game. To my delight, what I found was a colorful crowd, mostly rabble-rousers riled up by the proposed Greenfield plant. I enjoy people of their tie-dyed ilk.

The place was bustling, Falltown String Band providing a complementary touch, as I stood out of the way, leaning against a wall near the kitchen doorway. The woman standing next to me was sporting an anti-biomass pin. We, of course, got to talking. When I introduced myself, she recognized my name and thanked me for an anti-biomass column I had written, then launched into a diatribe about my place of employment, criticizing perceived biased coverage in favor of the proposed plant. I craftily avoided that discussion before she introduced me to a woman approaching from my other side. Yep, another rabid opponent of biomass, known to foes as the “supposed” clean-energy alternative. Yes indeed, antis do take issue with that clean-and-green biomass-friendly description. They agree it’s green in a money-making context, but insist it’s far from clean.

Anyway, when my newfound friend said she wanted my business card, I told her my wallet was in the truck and we went outside to get away from the commotion. At the truck, warm winter sun high in the sky, we resumed our conversation. She encouraged me to speak to John Organ, chief of the Division of Wildlife & Sport Fish Restoration at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast regional office in Hadley. “He lives in Buckland,” she told me, “seems to be a pretty nice guy and may have something to say that biomass supporters don’t want to see in print.”

That surprised me. USFWS administrators these days seem to trend more toward Reagan revolutionaries connected to George W. Bush and his sorry lot, certainly no friends of the environment. And although I don’t know if Organ fits that bill, I never did contact him. I chose instead to e-mail one of his underlings, my friend and longtime source John McDonald, a wildlife biologist from Organ’s District 5 office. Formerly our state Deer Project Leader, McDonald specializes in black bears and deer. I figured he’d be as good a source as any about the potential impact of biomass logging on forest habitats crucial to wildlife.

McDonald and other deer specialists I’ve spoken to have for years identified “old-growth forests” in western Franklin County as the No. 1 obstacle to building desired deer densities of 12 to 15 per square mile. Needed, they say, is responsible harvest of trees 80 and more years old along with small patchwork clear-cuts to stimulate forest regeneration and create browse for deer and other wildlife that depend on it for winter sustenance. So, the salient biomass questions seem to be: Will it be an impetus for forest management; and is there enough fuel to feed the pig over the long haul without overharvesting? Then, a couple more questions: How many plants would be too many; and wouldn’t too many eventually create a supply shortage necessitating incineration of other fuels, perhaps hard-to-dispose-of rubbish that would belch unhealthy smoke into our skies, no matter what the proponents say about filters and buffers? McDonald was not timid about responding, on the record.

Yes, he opined, there is enough fuel to feed the pig by responsible logging, but not if opponents are successful in pulling state forests out of the supply chain while convincing private landowners not to get involved with biomass harvesting. As for how many plants would be too many, McDonald wouldn’t venture a guess, just wrote: “It is essentially a math problem that anyone thinking of building a plant would figure out. They would know how much wood they need per day, per month, per year to produce their target output. There is pretty good information on forest inventory available, and then they would have to estimate how easy procurement would be within various hauling distances. Then, you might do some estimates with nearby competitors and recalculate.” McDonald thinks biomass harvest would be an ideal solution for landowners whose wood lots are dominated by low-value hard and soft woods. Such trees could be removed to make way for a more valuable, healthy forest while bringing a financial return to the landowner. Biomass would also provide a market during periodic wood surpluses produced by such natural occurrences as last winter’s ice storm, which left many local upland forests in ruin and need of cleanup; it would also be a remedy for plagues like the Asian long-horned beetle invasion that led to the removal of thousands of mature central Massachusetts hardwoods, many gracing quintessential New England roads. But the question remains: Would the supply last forever or would we soon exhaust it and succumb to irresponsible, greedy logging? It’s a difficult question to answer before long-range impact on the forests can be assessed, all the more reason to proceed conservatively at the start by limiting the number of plants. Biomass opponents’ worst fear is that the demand will exceed the supply, eventually forcing plants to burn refuse that’s difficult to dispose of, stuff like tires and hazardous construction waste that few people north of the Mason-Dixon Line want burned and released into the skies. Count me among them. Sorry, but I don’t trust politicians, plant administrators and investors to do what’s right for the environment. There are piles of records to support my skepticism.

McDonald has concerns about another component of the argument: the activists raising a ruckus to derail biomass energy production. “What bothers me about the future is that folks want to keep taking parts of the resource base off the table, which might lead to irresponsible logging in the longer run,” he wrote. “If state forests are taken off the table for commercial logging, and local interest groups scare landowners from cutting trees, all bets are off. What could be a positive thing for forest health and wildlife species might then have negative consequences.” It’s a legitimate fear when you understand that the state owns the largest contiguous blocks of forest, thus foresters can do larger-scale operations there than on most private lands. But then again, according to McDonald, “That is the argument some folks on the other side use to oppose logging in state forests. They want to allow them to serve as reserves. So that becomes a value choice people need to make.”

From my perch high on a stately High Ridge beech, it seems there are better, more efficient ways to produce electricity than biomass, which seems like more of the same, not a step forward. Yes, I believe small-scale biomass energy production has a place in the big picture, but these large plants being proposed in western Massachusetts for the benefit of investors and eastern Massachusetts consumers are not for me. Given a choice, I’d prefer fewer smokestacks, not more. Everywhere. Not just in my backyard.

To me, this whole Greenfield biomass initiative smells like a project being pushed by disingenuous developers who attempted to slip it through quickly in a struggling town before residents understood the potential drawbacks. I saw the proponents speak and came away unimpressed. They answered the question they wanted to answer, cried foul on the ones they artfully ducked. Thankfully, cerebral Happy Valley activists were paying attention from the start, looked into the issue before the plant was built, and brought to light the promoters’ lies and half-truths.

My take is that the proposed Greenfield plant is a long way from its ground-breaking ceremony, regardless of what “Biomass Bill” and his most ardent supporters say. Just you wait and see. The opposition is vociferous, reaching deep into our gentle hilltowns, where the mindset is quite different than mainstream Greenfield’s. In fact, my observations tell me the countywide anti-biomass crowd is much stronger than the one opposing big-box development; and we all know how fast that Mackin-lot fiasco has borne fruit. It’ll be more of the same with biomass.

Trust me, those tie-dyeds will have a long time to snicker and dick
er. Why? Easy. Because they’re not just blowing smoke.

Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top