Canadian Biomass Magazine

Biomass Sustainability: Biomass no free-for-all

August 24, 2009
By Evelyne Thiffault

Jurisdictions around the world are developing or updating their biomass harvesting frameworks.  Three Canadian provinces have recently issued new policies or guidelines: Ontario in August 2008, New Brunswick in October 2008, and Nova Scotia in May 2009.

Jurisdictions around the world are developing or updating their biomass harvesting frameworks.  Three Canadian provinces have recently issued new policies or guidelines: Ontario in August 2008, New Brunswick in October 2008, and Nova Scotia in May 2009.  The latter is still in draft form, but I’m told the final version will be out shortly.  Yet there is one question that many are burning (in a carbon-friendly way) to ask: With all the existing regulations governing forestry, why create additional guidelines specifically for biomass harvesting?

Well, the supervision of forest activities needs to mirror the evolution of forest management issues, scientific knowledge, and public needs and demands.  Intensive methods of harvesting such as full-tree-to-roadside, or whole-tree, harvesting have been around for almost four decades.  However, existing regulations did not anticipate the increase in demand for low-quality fibre and the fact that slash and sub-merchantable stems are now being sought on harvested sites. Research has also become more targeted on the extent to which forests subjected to biomass harvesting can keep on providing clean water, sequestering carbon, supporting biodiversity, and growing healthy and productive stands.  It is thus time to integrate new knowledge into policies suited to today’s demands.

What might these policies look like?  Ontario’s biofibre policy explains why the province believes its current forest management policies are adequate, but explicitly mandates monitoring, an adaptive management approach, and a policy review in five years.  New Brunswick’s policy focuses primarily on the sustainability of soil productivity.  As a soil scientist, I am happy about this, but I imagine that my insect and mammal specialist colleagues are disappointed.  However, the policy states that the province will strive to embrace other forest values in the future.  It provides a list of high-risk areas on which forest biomass harvesting should not occur, including shallow, rocky, stony, dry, and poor soils, as well as wetlands. This is consistent with guidelines in other jurisdictions.  It also rules out areas for which a GIS-based input-output model predicts that biomass harvesting will create a nutrient imbalance.

By contrast, Nova Scotia’s draft guidelines take a broader view of sustainability.  For example, they address soil productivity issues by defining a gradient of site productivity and matching it with a gradient of site retention targets for fine woody debris (material less than 10 cm in diameter): the poorer the site, the higher the retention target.  Fine woody debris has higher concentrations of most nutrients than does coarser material.  The guidelines also set separate retention targets for coarse woody debris (in volume per area) according to stand cover type; these targets chiefly aim at providing structure and cover for wildlife and attempt to emulate the amounts found in natural unmanaged stands. 
Nova Scotia’s biomass harvesting and retention guidelines do not regulate the type of logging system to be used in forest operations; they are results oriented. In New Brunswick, full-tree chipping operations for pulpwood fibre are specifically excluded by the forest biomass policy, which is surprising because the ecological impacts are surely the same regardless of the industrial end-point (How long before the public and certified markets note this ecological contradiction?). Nevertheless, both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are committed to optimizing the role of biomass (other provincial policy makers, please take note): if slash material is not recovered, it has to be redistributed evenly over the cutover area to support ecological functions, and not piled and left at the roadside to become a uselessly decaying eyesore.  Also, and in my opinion the most critical and exciting part, all three policies include statements about monitoring biomass harvesting operations, with the results used to validate and improve future policies.


To conclude, I respect that Ontario has chosen to defend its current practices, rather than drift with the status quo as some other provinces are doing, and I predict that we will see site-specific guidelines in its revised policy in five years.  Although the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia biomass harvesting policies and guidelines are not perfect, I give a warm ‘bravo!’ to these two Maritime provinces for taking a proactive stance and producing guidelines that are fairly clear and easy to apply in the field.  As long as they, and Ontario, stay true to their ‘monitor-validate-review’ commitment, they provide fine examples of how the wheel of adaptive management can be set in motion. •

Dr. Evelyne Thiffault of Natural Resources Canada contributes
thoughts on biomass harvesting sustainability to Canadian Biomass on
behalf of the Canadian Research Group on Ecosystem Sustainability.

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