Iowa landowners could supply woody biomass for biofuel while restoring forests to health, finds study; state has 11-17 million dry tons of woody biomass unsuitable for sawlogs

AMES, Iowa , May 24, 2012 (press release) – Iowa landowners can supply emerging markets with sustainable biofuel while restoring forests to health, according to new research from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

John Tyndall, assistant professor in natural resource ecology and management at Iowa State University, led a Leopold Center Ecology Initiative project to study the potential of woody biomass as a biofuel feedstock in Iowa. He worked with assistant professor Julie Blanchong, research associate Tricia Knoot, and Jesse Randall of ISU Forestry Extension.

The research suggests that Iowa’s forests can become an important biofuel source, in addition to crop residues and energy crops like switchgrass and sorghum. The study estimated that Iowa has 11 to 17 million dry tons of woody biomass in materials too small to harvest as sawlogs. Private landowners own most of these forested areas in small, fragmented parcels.

In a survey of 683 landowners, only seven percent were “very likely” to harvest and sell woody biomass if markets developed. Thirty-eight percent indicated interest but wanted more information. Forty-three percent were not likely to participate, and 12 percent said they would not participate. The survey focused on forest-savvy, engaged landowners who belong to the Iowa Woodland Owners Association or the Iowa Tree Farm Association.

Nearly half of those surveyed expressed some interest, and Tyndall feels confident that woody biomass markets will develop. He envisions a system that provides renewable energy to local power plants while giving landowners an incentive to improve forest health. Many of Iowa’s woodlands have suffered from a lack of management. Without the beneficial fires that once cleared out undergrowth, forests have become denser and oak trees have diminished. Invasive species like honeysuckle crowd out the native understory plants.

Careful harvest of woody biomass can address these problems and “do wonders for our forests,” Tyndall said. Landowners can remove small trees, brush and invasive species to open up the understory, fostering diversity and improving wildlife habitat. Healthy forests improve water quality, sequester carbon and provide recreational opportunities like hunting and bird-watching.

“If you do it right, and if it’s done in the context of other management goals, harvesting woody biomass can have win-win outcomes for a lot of people,” Tyndall said.

One concern is that if viable markets develop for woody biomass, landowners might have an incentive to harvest too many trees. But the results of Tyndall’s research suggest otherwise. The survey found that landowners interested in biofuel markets primarily wanted to improve their woodlands, with income only a secondary consideration.

The major barriers are developing reliable markets and coordinating the collection of woody biomass from multiple small woodlands. However, several Iowa power plants already have the capacity to use renewable fuels, and the University of Iowa recently began an initiative to develop a large supply of biofuels to replace coal in the campus power plant.

“We have a grand vision that all of these things are going to happen,” Tyndall said. “The potential is really strong for it.”

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