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Knowing the difference between forest myths, realities

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One of my favorite movie series is “Lord of the Rings,” which I watched many times with my kids. I particularly enjoy the “Ents” and the forests that they take care of against the villainous “biting, scratching, gnawing” orcs. However, I recognize and can distinguish the difference between the fantasy of a story, and reality of the world we live in.

Apparently a recent (Dec. 24) article concerning a research project that seeks to find the means by which waste wood is converted into liquid fuels as an alternative to petroleum-based gas or diesel garnered the ire of folks like Keith Hammer of the Swan View Coalition because it is stated that dead wood waste material would be used, and counter argued that it is not waste but crucial for maintaining forest ecosystems and soils.

Sorry, but the myth that wood builds soils has been around about as long as the “Lord of the Rings” story and comes from those who do not practice growing anything other than misrepresentations; otherwise they would have first-hand knowledge that the best way to suppress plant growth is to lay down a layer of wood chips or woody debris.

In fact, the next time anyone goes out hiking or exploring in a forest, examine how many plants are growing in old, rotten tree stems that have taken 100 years to get to that point of decay. You will be hard pressed to find any. Wood is extremely nutrient-poor and as it decays it releases organic acids that do a pretty good job acidifying soils and enhancing nutrient-leaching. Some wood is great habitat for small animals, fungal communities and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and serves its best purpose helping hold onto critical moisture in the dry forest ecosystems of the Northern Rockies.

What builds the best soil are the forbs and shrubs that every year grow and turn over soluble carbohydrates and fine root systems into the soil and for some species fix nitrogen, often at a rate 100 times that of decayed wood – living bacteria. Most dead wood in the dry forest ecosystems of the Northern Rockies ends up burning in wildfires and producing the wonderful smoke that graces our summers these days.

And yes, some wildfires also have beneficial impacts (before that becomes another topic of outrage). As with any form of management, how much dead wood is removed from a particular forest site for our use and how much is left for nature’s processes is determined by quality research and practical application. Furthermore, compared with all the dead wood created in our forests on an annual basis, the biomass conversion plants being studied would use the amount of dead wood analogous to a bottle of water from Flathead Lake.

In fact, the proposal for Montana would primarily look to use existing debris generated from fire hazard reduction work, thinning and logging applications that currently is piled and burned to remove it as a future fire hazard. Converting it into an energy source would not only increase the utilization efficiency of our work in the forest, it would generate income from what now is a cost.

Painting a picture of the reported biomass projects creating an industry that will “grind up forest ecosystems in remote wilderness” is about as valid as expecting orcs to emerge from caves and wizards to come save the day. It is a great fantasy but has little to do with reality.

Peter Kolb is a Montana State University Extension forestry specialist and associate professor of forest ecology and management.

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