When it comes to making money from a downed tree there aren’t many options: you can slice it into boards, burn it for heat, or mash it into paper. That’s about it.
Or so I thought, and you probably did too.
“That’s really the tip of the proverbial iceberg,” said Joe Short, vice president of the Northern Forest Center in Concord. “There’s a perception that the forest-products industry is static … but it’s constantly innovating in terms of what to do with the wood and the fiber that our forests produce.”
For example, you can turn trees into biochar, a cousin of charcoal that stores carbon and can be used for everything from fertilizer to animal feed. There’s a big biochar plant starting up in Maine and others on the way. Good thing, too: If I had a million bucks to fight climate change the New Hampshire way, I’d make biochar.
Another idea is to create buildings with entire trees rather than boards, turning trunks and limbs into pillars and support structures, as is being done by Wisconsin firm Whole Tree Structures, which is expanding into New England. Or you can turn the cellulose that gives trees their structure into home insulation, either blown-in or panels, to replace the polyurethane version, as being done by Maine company TimperHP.
I learned about those in a recent Northern Forest Research Center webinar featuring startups turning each of these ideas into businesses of various sizes. The biochar presentation was by Vermont’s Green State Biochar. You can watch a recording at northernforest.org/todays-northern-forest-economy-series/ with the title “Wood Innovations.”
But that’s not all. Short pointed to the University of Maine in the only state more heavily forested than us, which is researching the use of nanofiber cellulose, using it for 3-D printing products and as an additive to reduce the harm that cement does to the atmosphere. This is what he called the “whiz-bang end of the spectrum.”
The more traditional end of the spectrum finds engineered lumber, which assembles smaller pieces of wood into full-sized timbers or wood panels, creating replacements for steel or even cement in mid-rise buildings. That’s a big climate-change win because it locks up the carbon stored in the wood while also replacing the carbon emitted when making steel or cement.
The Northern Forest Center sponsored the webinar because its goal is to support “resilient communities” throughout the vast woodlands from northern New York to Maine, which mostly means supporting industries that provide local jobs without destroying the surroundings.
For forestry jobs that means finding replacements for the paper industry. Paper mills have been shutting in the Northeast for decades (much to the relief of neighbors who had to smell them) and the trend isn’t slowing. Since 2016, the shutdown of mills including the massive one in Jay, Maine, has removed markets for something like eight million tons of harvested wood annually.
Foresters can’t stay in business if they can’t sell low-grade wood – the stuff that can’t be turned into traditional lumber – and if foresters can’t stay in business, then our forests will suffer along with our rural communities.
That last point is counter-intuitive. If I say we have to cut down parts of the forest to save them you may respond that surely, leaving them alone is better.
But we can’t leave them alone, not in a world where the climate is changing so fast that the growth patterns established over millennia can no longer thrive, where invasive plants and bugs and pathogens are upending entire ecosystems in the blink of an eye and where pollution is affecting everything everywhere.
“The reality is we have very few, quote-unquote, wild forests in New England,” said Short. Most forests were heavily logged up until a half-century ago, so they don’t have the natural mix of ages, making it even harder to cope with the stresses that modernity brings. “Active forest management is one way of keeping forests resilient.”
I have become increasingly suspicious of the “invisible hand of the marketplace,” which wreaks havoc as often as it brings improvement, but this is a case where the markets are vital. If there aren’t private companies that can make sellable products out of low-grade wood then our foresters will suffer, which means our rural regions will suffer and our forests will suffer, too. Government action can push things in the right direction but good old capitalism has to carry the ball.
So cheer on new ways of doing valuable stuff with various parts of our trees, whether it involves nano-scale construction or a 10-story building.