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Picking up sticks: Fire Resilient Landscapes and the public good

Andrew Avitt
Office of Communication
January 10, 2022

Editor's note: The Innovative Finance for National Forests grant program supports partner organizations developing out of the box financial solutions to some of forest management’s most vexing challenges. One partner, Wisewood Energy is focused on reducing small woody materials on the forest floor and how it could mitigate extreme wildfires, improve forest health and provide benefits to surrounding communities and their economies.

Fire adapted communities across much of the western states are constantly assessing the best way to manage the landscape, while also reducing extreme wildfire risk.

There are a few common methods. Land managers often implement treatments such as mechanical thinning, the removal of trees from overstocked forests, and prescribed burns, controlled, low-intensity burns to clear excess debris from the forest floor. Both of these interventions have been proven to reduce extreme wildfire behavior and assist firefighters in suppressing a fire if one should ignite.

While mechanical thinning sometimes provides an incentive for land managers, by offsetting their costs with the sale of the timber harvested, the incentives to reduce smaller woody materials and diameter trees remains low. In many cases there is no market for small diameter trees removed through thinning. As such, land managers’ best option is often to burn large piles of non-marketable wood during the colder, wetter winter months .

A picture of a large pile of wood chips in a storage building.
Woody material from forest management and fuel reduction treatments in the region are chipped and stored under cover for use in local wood energy systems. Photo Courtesy of Wisewood Energy.

“The problem is that small biomass, such as smaller trees, and branches are not as valuable as larger timber,” said Meagan Hartman Vice President & Director of Business Development with Wisewood Energy. “They are not as valuable because there is not much that can be made from those materials.”

But Wisewood Energy isn’t interested in creating products, instead it is focused on turning small diameter material into biomass fuel, to generate heat and electricity for local communities while also mitigating the risk of extreme wildfires in those areas.

Recently Wisewood Energy was awarded its second Innovative Finance for National Forests grant from the USDA Forest Service, the National Forest Foundation, and U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities to explore those possibilities.

A picture of a large area in flames from a wildfire.
Modern wood boilers automatically monitor and control operating parameters like oxygen levels, ensuring complete combustion and low emissions. Photo Courtesy of Wisewood Energy.

The Portland, Oregon based organization, designs wood energy systems that provide heat and/or electricity. Ski lodges and resorts are good candidates for these types of systems, said Hartman. “They are situated in or near a forest, and typically engage in forest management regardless, including fuel reduction treatments. Also, more secluded ski resorts may not have access to natural gas, which makes them reliant on expensive propane or fuel oil, and have a high demand for heat since peak season is in the winter. Wood energy systems are a great alternative to fill those needs.”

A picture of a wood building project.
Wisewood completed the engineering and supported construction of a small-scale combined heat-and-power system in Plumas County, CA. The system uses wood chips from local management activities to provide heat and net-metered electricity to a county building, and is the first CLT structure built in the state. Photo Courtesy of Wisewood Energy.

The organization has constructed more than 20 projects over the last 10 years, designing wood energy systems and identifying paths to implementation for more than 60 others. They are turning their focus towards communities living in fire adapted environments and those most prone to wildfire risk, where these types of projects can not only support local economies but reduce the risk of extreme wildfire and to provide firefighters with defensible space to work.

“The key part of our innovation project, using the Innovative Finance for National Forests grant, is trying to address the major obstacles to implementing these systems: high costs of construction, continuity cost analysis, design, and construction, and reliable operations and maintenance of biomass facilities.”

Two pictures showing a biomass facility, onw picture showing a couple workers on the inside and another picture showing the outside of the facility.
In eastern Oregon Wisewood Energy designed a dual-feed pellet plant that was installed at an old mill site. It produces alfalfa pellets and other value-added products for part of the year, and then switches to wood pellet production. A biomass boiler provides drying capacity for the plant. Photo Courtesy of Wisewood Energy.

In some cases, the wood energy systems are fully designed but the initial investment to implement is lacking. Developing a sustainable financial model that incorporates grants, tax credits, and investments from organizations and local governments could ease the initial startup costs, as well as annual sales of  thermal energy and electricity to end users or back to the grid.

“The marrying of all these sources of funding and revenue, along with a turnkey solution for project implementation and operations, is something that has not been done in the wood energy industry at the community scale,” said Hartman, “But all those involved, small business owners, residents in the community, they see the problems that come along with extreme wildfire, this is one potential solution to that problem while also offering a variety of other benefits to the community and environment.”

Wisewood Energy has been awarded the grant for the second year and intends to take their project onto the next step, to raise additional startup funding and implement pilot projects.

For more information on the Wisewood Energy and their project please visit their website.

The Innovating Continues

“Wisewood Energy’s project is a good example of an innovative finance approach that could reap big benefits for communities and the agency,” said Nathalie Woolworth, conservation finance program manager with the Forest Service’s National Partnership Office, “Incentivizing cross-boundary land managers to remove small diameter timber reduces wildfire risk and improves forest health while growing local wood economies.”

“We are in the second year of partnering with organizations and companies like Wisewood Energy, and we’ve seen a number of solutions advance with financial support and technical assistance provided by the Innovative Finance for National Forests program.”

The Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access Foundation explored explored how private landowners, businesses, utility companies, and government could come together to address trail maintenance backlogs, and support thriving, local, recreation industries.

The Maine Mountain Collaborative studied ways to incentivize long-term forest ownership to increase forest health and habitat for wildlife.

The Nature Conservancy explored how private landowners and communities might save on wildfire insurance premiums by conducting fuel treatments on their land, resulting in more affordable insurance and fire resilient landscapes.

To learn more about the Innovation Finance for National Forest grant program and how to apply, visit the National Forest Foundation.

A picture showing four people at a ribbon-cutting event.
2016 ribbon cutting for a new biomass district heating system in Burns, Oregon that heats a local school, county courthouse, sheriff's office, mental health facility, and church, offsetting propane and diesel. Photo Courtesy of Wisewood Energy.