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A review of harvesting guidelines and a discussion of related challenges

Current estimates are that biomass from forestry and agriculture provides about 14 percent of the world’s primary energy supplies, principally in the form of wood used for cooking and home heating. With effective planning, strategic development, and a focus on the latest technologies for converting wood to useful energy, the International Energy Agency (IEA) believes the potential exists for biomass resources to meet 50 percent of world energy demands during the next century while still reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

Despite general enthusiasm for the prospects of bioenergy development, there are significant concerns about the potential role of forests in bioenergy production. Some see great opportunity, viewing new markets for forest biomass as a source of income to more effectively respond to ecological challenges including insect and disease threats, wildfire and fuel loading concerns, storm events and natural disasters. There are, in addition, perceived benefits of achieving more effective management of young forests to support longer-lived species and higher valued products. Biomass harvesting and resulting energy, fuel and chemical products are also widely viewed as offering significant opportunities for economic development, fossil fuel independence, community self-reliance and job creation. It is a concept that has gained the attention of governments worldwide. Others envision problems. For example, in Africa and other developing regions of the world, most of the wood harvested is currently used for home heating and cooking. With such use already a major driver of deforestation, in these regions there is great concern over expanded exploitation of forests for such things as liquid fuels production. In developed regions of the world there are concerns regarding forests as a source of biomass for energy production, including possible negative impacts on esthetics, biodiversity, soil productivity and ecosystem health. It is worth noting that environmental concerns are not unique to biomass energy or woody biomass harvesting; there are serious questions about potential environmental impacts associated with the full range of alternative energy options.

A cornerstone of responsible biomass energy development is the establishment of guidelines for biomass harvesting and utilization that fully consider short- and long-term impacts on the local and regional environment and communities. The potential for significant impacts from biomass harvesting and collection suggests an important public policy and planning role – particularly when forests are involved – as a large number of communities, existing biomass-dependent industries, and a broad swath of the landscape will likely be engaged. Thus, broad and proactive stakeholder input that considers ecological, social, and economic impacts will be important to help ensure that unintended consequences of biomass energy development can be avoided. Periodic updating of guidelines, based upon the results of monitoring and improved scientific knowledge, will also be important.

In some regions, including several U.S. states, guidelines have been developed for removal of woody biomass from forested areas; similarly, guidelines for removal of agricultural residues, in anticipation of commercialization of cellulosic ethanol and other fuels, have been developed. This report provides a brief overview of forest biomass harvesting guidelines and their importance in the United States and other regions of the world.

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