Cleaning up biomess creates biomass

Working for wildlife can get messy. The forest-management practices needed to create good habitat produce a lot of woody waste on the ground. Much of this is sold to timber and pulp companies or used to create brush piles for small mammals and birds, but what about the material that’s not very desirable for habitat or to the forest industry?

The organic material generated through logging, thinning, creating openings and removing invasive trees, to name a few, fall under a term called biomass. Biomass is really any waste organic material that can be used to produce other goods, such as fertilizer, food supplements, cosmetics, detergents and even fuel or energy.

“Biomass, in our case, is made up of small diameter pine and hardwood trees, dead and decaying trees, trees with no timber or pulp value, such as certain invasive species and limbs,” said Mark Hatfield, NWTF’s national director of conservation services. “Most of this biomass will go toward making fuels, such as ethanol or pellets, that are used in alternative energy plants.”

Through our regular habitat work on private and public lands, the NWTF supports a wide range of industries and communities from logging and timber crews to paper mills to large equipment operators to tree planting crews and beyond. Biomass is just one more industry positively impacted by conservation work.

One state that is a great example of conservation work supporting the economy is in Florida. Here, NWTF conservation practices or those implemented through partnerships have spawned biomass companies that have sprung up near large project areas. These companies use the biomass generated from these project sites to create fuels.

In Florida, for example, Enviva, an international timber company with a mill in Cottondale, Florida, broadened its product base and was primed to take advantage of forest restoration work occurring on public and private lands following Hurricane Michael. In this area, there was a significant amount of damage to pine plantations and private forests as the hurricane’s eye tracked north. Windfall and broken trees were spread over a number of counties in the state and crews are working feverishly to clean it up and replant with longleaf pine where possible.

According to Scott Williams, NWTF wildlife biologist in Florida, “My job primarily involves working with private landowners by writing wildlife and forest management plans for USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service cost-share programs. After Hurricane Michael hit in October 2018, many landowners that were counting on having their timber as a source of income — and even their primary retirement fund — were just left with a catastrophic mess of tangled trees that no one was interested in.”

Where most timber and pulp companies only want pine wood, Enviva will take pine or hardwood biomass to run through their pellet mill.

“Enviva provided what was the best and sometimes only option for many desperate landowners, allowing them to at least have their damaged land cleared to be a blank slate to start over,” Williams explained. “If it wasn't for the service Enviva offers, there would be literally tons of timber left on the ground creating a wildfire risk and eventually growing over with a thick stand of primarily hardwoods. In events like this, companies that take this type of biomass are invaluable.”

A pellet mill runs the biomass through several processes to break down the pieces into smaller fibers. Larger pieces of wood are chipped first then run through a hammer mill, a machine that pulverizes the chips into fine fibers. This is then mixed with other ingredients and it goes through the pellet mill, which either extrudes the pellets or molds them under intense pressure using a fixed-plate mold.

These wood-fiber pellets can be used in wood-burning stoves to heat homes or in industrial or utility settings to create heat that generates electricity.

“This is just one example of how NWTF conservation for the wild turkey can impact energy production, industry, jobs and the local economy,” said Hatfield.

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