Dogged by critics who say the growing wood pellet industry fouls the air and spoils sensitive woodlands, Maryland-based Enviva says it will provide $5 million over 10 years for conservation grants to protect bottomland forests in North Carolina and Virginia.
Enviva makes pellets at two mills in northeastern North Carolina and one in southeastern Virginia, using wood from nearby forests, and loads the pellets onto ships at its export terminal in Chesapeake, Va. Electric utilities in Europe and the United Kingdom burn American wood pellets for fuel.
Nonprofit groups will be eligible for grants for two purposes, Enviva said Wednesday: to shield some of the most ecologically sensitive forests from any logging, and to protect other woodlands – where bottomland timber is harvested for furniture, construction lumber, pellets and other uses – from being converted to farms and shopping centers.
“There are a lot of bottomland areas in coastal North Carolina and Virginia that are quite sensitive and should be kept as they are,” Enviva spokesman Kent Jenkins Jr. said. Four forest types will qualify for special attention, and Enviva also will not accept wood from these areas, Jenkins said: pocosins, Carolina bays, stands of Atlantic white cedar and cypress-tupelo swamps.
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“But also there are a lot of working forests in the region – families that have had land in forest for generations, and they want to keep it that way,” Jenkins said. Grants might be used to buy conservation easements, where the landowner pledges to keep the land in timber that can be logged periodically and not to convert it to other uses.
Climate policymakers in Europe have pushed utilities to replace coal with wood pellets in recent years. Four million tons of pellets were shipped across the Atlantic in 2014 from forests in the southeastern United States. In 2016, Enviva will open a third North Carolina mill in Sampson County and start shipping pellets from a new export facility at the Wilmington port.
Although the pellet market was created by sustainable-energy policies on the other side of the Atlantic, some environmentalists argue that wood pellets cause more harm than coal – putting more carbon into the atmosphere, over the long run, and contributing more to climate change.
Our goal has always been to leave the forest better than we found it.
Kurt Jenkins Jr., Enviva
“This Enviva conservation fund represents a step in the right direction, but it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of their overall impact,” said Debbie Hammel of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Burning whole trees to produce electricity is dirtier than coal.”
Hammel said Enviva is offering to protect some important types of forests, but it fails to put limits on logging in other sensitive areas, including oak and ash swamps and longleaf pine forests.
Bob Abt, a professor of natural resource management and economics at N.C. State University, noted that the NRDC and other environmental groups have negotiated sweeping conservation agreements in past years, with timber and paper companies pledging to meet new environmental standards.
“Both the forest product companies and the conservation community have a long-term stake in the sustainability of forests,” Abt said. “What is somewhat unique about this structure is that there will be an open grant proposal process that will steer the money to where it can do the most good.”
The nonprofit U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, based in Greenville, S.C., will administer the fund and award the grants. The endowment is supported with proceeds from the settlement of a lumber trade dispute between the United States and Canada.
Burning whole trees to produce electricity is dirtier than coal.
Debbie Hammel, Natural Resources Defense Council
Timber vs. pellets
Woodland owners still get the most money from high-quality saw timber, which can be used for construction and furniture. Pellets are made from less valuable wood that sometimes has no other market, including limbs and whole trees that are forked or knotty, crooked or hollow.
Some foresters say the new pellet market makes the timber harvest more lucrative for landowners, but they add that the demand for saw timber still controls logging decisions. Hammel and other critics say Enviva and other pellet makers will cause increased clear-cutting.
The 35 Virginia and North Carolina counties covered in the new program have more than 1 million acres of bottomland forests. Jenkins said he did not know what portion of this includes cypress-tupelo swamps and the other areas targeted for preservation.
Enviva isn’t staying out of the bottomlands altogether. The company draws about 20 percent of its wood from these low-lying, marshy areas near streams and rivers, home to species such as oak, gum and cypress.
“We work in the forests of Virginia and North Carolina every day,” Jenkins said. “They’re incredibly beneficial to the communities. Our goal has always been to leave the forest better than we found it.”
The Enviva Forest Conservation Fund website was adorned with pretty pictures of shady cypress swamps – indistinguishable from the images used by the NRDC to warn that Southeastern forests “are being felled to send fuel overseas.”