Mendocino County Woody Biomass Working Group

The Mendocino County Woody Biomass Working Group consists of community leaders from a variety of different backgrounds including members from local government, the forest service, the USDA, non-profit organizations, environmental advocates, small business owners, members of the timber industry and community members concerned with the economic and environmental future of Mendocino County.

Our mission is to study the feasibility of utilizing woody biomass for energy production and economically viable value-added products by developing strategies for biomass projects that are consistent with community needs/values, that promote environmental health, and that strengthen our economy.

About Woody Biomass Utilization

Ecological Importance:
In the past, forest health throughout Mendocino County has been impacted by management practices and catastrophic forest fire events that have created large tracks of overcrowded small diameter trees and brush. This excess woody biomass impacts the entire forest ecosystem - using more water than well spaced forests, making it difficult for species to hunt and forage, stunting tree growth, and increasing forest vulnerability to catastrophic forest fire events which devastate forest soils, terrestrial and aquatic habitat.

While forest overcrowding has well-known negative impacts, removing excess biomass is costly and the monetary benefits are virtually non-existent in the short-term because waste wood does not have an economic value high enough to pay for the cost of removal and transportation. Even with these high costs, many private and public timberland owners thin overcrowded stands to improve forest health using one or more methods: herbicide application to kill fast growing underbrush, thinning, piling and burning, or thinning and leaving the biomass on the forest floor. Each of these methods is wasteful, underutilizing a potential energy source. Herbicide application and open field burning present additional ecological problems. Open field burning for example, releases more emissions into the atmosphere than burning the same amount of wood in a biomass-fueled boiler.

Converting woody biomass into value added end product (electricity, bio-oil, biochar etc.) allows timberland owners to offset the cost of thinning overcrowded forests in an ecologically responsible way. Furthermore, the end products created can have additional environmental benefits as a substitute for petroleum and coal (electricity production / bio-oil production), or as a carbon sequestration tool and soil amendment (biochar production).

Economic Importance:
Economically, woody biomass infrastructure is part of a much larger restoration economy that is beginning to blossom in the region. Removing woody biomass from the forest, transporting it to a facility and operating the facility create an array of potential restoration jobs and tax base for the County. These jobs will keep loggers, log truck drivers and sawmill operators employed while the timber industry rebounds. Furthermore, selling woody biomass offsets the cost of biomass removal allowing timberland owners to improve forest health by removing biomass on more acres.

Social Equity Importance:
Job creation is only one aspect of the social equity benefits of creating a biomass industry in Mendocino County. Local empowerment regarding the use of the County's natural resources is an important goal in of itself. The history of natural resource use in Mendocino County has been one of "cut and run" practices that have milked the economic value from our forests, left watersheds and ecosystem services impaired and local people jobless. The WBWG community-based process allows communities to choose what types of biomass technologies are appropriate for their region. Ideally, the WBWG would like to see a community investment model that allows true local ownership of the region's biomass industry.

In addition, the WBWG is concerned about how, and how much woody biomass is taken from the forest. Improving the functionality of ecosystems is an ecological benefit of appropriate biomass removal but over-removal of biomass can have the opposite effect, harming forest ecosystems and the people that rely on them. Scientific inquiry and community input / voicing of community concern can help set the ecological boundaries of biomass removal. See "Questions, Comments and Concerns" (below) that have been voiced at outreach events throughout the county.