Underutilized Wood: Harvest and Processing Opportunities

Low Use Wood Harvest and Processing Options Discussed at Recent Symposium
Underutilized Wood: Harvest and Processing Opportunities - News


Note the difference: Left side - hi graded lot, Right side - sustainably harvested lot

It is called many things - low-use wood, low-value wood, non-merchantable timber, underutilized wood, "junk" wood, cull timber. The majority of stems found in our regional forests are not high-value sawtimber trees, but this "other stuff.", which can be a primary source for bioenergy production as well as other uses. While the highest-value wood products primarily drive industry demand and major commercial resource management activities, the way we manage the low-value resource has profound repercussions.

The difference between, for example, the lucrative and popular (but detrimental) high-grade and the sustainable and favorable low thinning, timber stand improvement cut, or first-entry shelterwood cut boils down to the key management mechanism of how the low-value, "junk" wood is handled. Similarly, the difference between that unhealthy high-grade and a nearby healthy clearcut is simply whether low-value wood was left on the stump or cut. Both comparisons were discussed during the field tours in WVU's research forest as part of a recent program, "Opportunities for Underutilized Wood: Energy and Products, Regional Symposium," held last month in Morgantown, WV.

This is what incentivizing the fuller use of low-value wood can do from a silvicultural perspective. It sounds dramatic, but in many cases, a manager's ability to control, market, or use this wood can mean the difference between achieving healthy or unhealthy forest conditions.

The symposium tackled the underutilized wood issue with a series of panel discussions that zoomed in on a few different steps of a branching and complex supply chain for forest-derived and residual low-value wood streams. The "Harvesting and Processing" Panel focused on the very front of that supply chain, where foresters, loggers, and land managers leverage silvicultural creativity and close partnerships with processors. That's right - we begin in the woods.

The value proposition for underutilized wood, in many discussions, centers strongly on external market demand pull. Certainly, new demand can incentivize fuller utilization of this resource (and markets were a big part of this symposium's discussion) but economic opportunities related to the management of natural resources need not depend solely on traditionally marketed downstream products, especially considering that the use of mill residues for these markets outpaces the use of forest-derived biomass. Reducing the necessary expenditures and other pitfalls associated with the process of good management provides advantages as well. And good management almost always requires investment.

Consider an example shared by panelist Luke Dillinger (Wood Procurement Manager, Domtar). Consultants at Generations Forestry stared down the barrel of an issue all too familiar to managers in Pennsylvania's Allegheny Plateau. They were facing a degraded stand with a dense mid-canopy of beech destined to shade out and outcompete desirable regenerating stems. Beech interference in the mid-canopy is usually too tall to control with broadcast herbicide but too small in diameter to traditionally market as pulpwood for sale. Using stem applications of herbicide to eliminate the beech layer was labor-intensive, chemical-intensive, and cost hundreds of dollars per acre. Instead, a partnership emerged with Domtar, a pulp and paper mill located in Johnsonburg, PA, who agreed to buy and use these mostly small stems to meet a timely need of fiber. With a mechanized harvest crew, a weight-scaled sale capturing mostly low-value material successfully took place, with advantages for all partners. If you are interested in digging deeper into this partnership and seeing the results on the ground, I encourage you to attend the Allegheny Society of American Foresters Summer Training focused on restoration forestry, to be held in Bradford, PA, August 8-10; field tours will feature these stands.

The harvester's role in a partnership like this is key; a skilled crew with experience handling and initially processing smaller-diameter material or stems with defects shouldn't be underappreciated. The symposium's field tours discussed and demonstrated several of the operational challenges of harvesting lower-value material, especially the need to avoid damaging residual high-value, sawtimber stems in the process. Matt Dumm (Manager, D&D Wood Products) discussed how D&D capitalizes on the need for this particular operator expertise, turning a tough logistical operation into an advantage; D&D actually prioritizes tackling low-use wood cuts as a way to specialize in the marketplace.

Brett Chedzoy's (Cornell Extension Forester) discussion of slash walls introduced another silviculturally innovative outlet for low-value wood. Ravenous deer put tremendous pressure on a regenerating stand, so much, in fact, that many foresters install 8-foot-tall woven-wire fencing around cuts where deer populations are high. As you may imagine, the outright cost of fencing can be high, but even more costs are incurred to monitor and maintain the fence. As part of a research trial in the Arnot Teaching and Research Forest, Chedzoy and his colleagues have worked with a mechanized logging crew to construct similar exclosures out of logging slash and low-value stems that would otherwise be left scattered on the ground. Their ongoing work now will test whether these "slash walls" are effective at excluding deer, how they perform over time, and the logistic and economic efficiency of this approach over traditional fencing.

Chedzoy's slash walls are a compelling concept because they use low-value wood to provide a high-value service that would otherwise have to be externally purchased and brought on site. So too did the example highlighted by Shawn Grushecky (Assistant Professor, WVU): in-situ chipping and manufacturing of filter socks ("silt socks") for erosion and sedimentation (E&S) control. E&S regulations vary by state, but filter socks are a frequently implemented BMP in unconventional well development. Most commonly, these socks are filled with composted wood chips, but Grushecky's work examines the practicality of using wood chips created during harvest activities associated with oil and gas development in forested areas. The practice integrates E&S raw material procurement with planned harvest activities, increasing process efficiency and potentially reducing truck traffic to the site.

Many of these success stories are niche opportunities, certainly. A logging company specializes in low-use wood harvests because it's a less competitive corner of the market. A restoration cut works because a unique set of partners with a long history of trust-building activities works together. In-situ re-imagining of a material source in a management activity provides the model for a new approach to realizing that BMP. It's tempting to look at these niche examples and dismiss their applicability to a large industry at scale.

But perhaps unique circumstances are in fact the point, the common thread between these four speakers' examples of what works, or what's worth trying. Wood markets are volatile, responding to a host of factors far more diverse than supply and demand (another discussion featured in this symposium's program). But this is an industry that thrives on opportunistic ingenuity. These admittedly niche examples are individual and creative solutions to common and broad-scale problems - deer fencing, E&S, managing degraded forests and large woody interference, and skilled operator availability for timber stand improvement work.

The information shared in this panel wasn't necessarily intended to inspire prescriptive replication, but rather to evidence and fuel the fire of creative problem solving around the low-use wood issue. Judging from the discussions that followed throughout the rest of the symposium, I have high hopes that a few new ideas were inspired, and that innovations will continue to be shared on this front.

Prepared by Sarah Wurzbacher, Penn State Extension