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Wood-to-Energy Efforts Expanding, Restoring Economies and Ecosystems

In mid-October, USDA’s Under Secretaries for Natural Resources & Environment, Rural Development, and Farm & Foreign Agriculture Services launched a major new Wood-to-Energy Initiative that seeks to build a forest restoration economy by integrating wood-to-energy activities within the larger forest products sector.  Consisting of a broad-scale effort to coordinate USDA technical and program support to stimulate the wood-to-energy sector, the initiative takes its cue from the Administration’s emphasis on the role of renewable fuels and forest restoration in sustaining rural jobs and prosperity, which has been expressed in numerous contexts by senior Administration officials including Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

What is a Forest Restoration Economy?
A forest restoration economy is one based on work in the woods with the intent of restoring the health of our forests and watersheds.   It is about partnership and collaboration between government, the private sector and communities to maintain important infrastructure, expand markets, and diversify rural economic opportunity.

The goal is to build opportunities to utilize wood from hazardous fuels treatments and small-diameter wood as feedstock sources for biofuel and bioenergy, with an aim to expand and better utilize this material as biomass that can help forest health treatments be economically viable.  This will put people to work in sustainable, green jobs that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, restore resilient forests and rangelands, reduce fire risks to the land and communities, and improve water quality.

Why a Forest Restoration Economy?
Forests across the nation are suffering from stressors ranging from climate change, to insect and disease epidemics, to decades of suppressed forest fire.  In the West, over 100 million acres are at risk of catastrophic wildfire, with almost the same amount (93 million) forecast to succumb to bark beetle infestation by 2020.  In the Southeast, 20 million acres of longleaf pine await restoration to protect habitat for many species including the endangered gopher tortoise and red-cockaded woodpecker.  And in the Northeast, hundreds of thousands of acres struggle to contend with introduced pests such as Asian long-horned beetle, emerald ash borer and hemlock wooly adelgid, while the region’s once-magnificent tracts of American chestnut, long thought to be lost to blight, are now on the verge of an inspiring comeback thanks to committed efforts by agencies, scientists, non-profits and community volunteers.

All of these restoration efforts require extensive work on the ground, and that translates to jobs–lots of them, in fact.  Recent studies estimate an average of 23 jobs created per $1 million invested in restoration; this is a much higher return than that of more conventional forms of infrastructure investment such as mass transit, roads, and energy production.

It is this opportunity that the Wood-to-Energy initiative seeks to grasp. We hope this initiative will gather momentum throughout the Federal government and the private sector, spurring new enthusiasm among communities, entrepreneurs, and federal service providers to expand wood-to-energy usage as additional pathway to restoring our economies and ecosystems.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack delivered a major energy policy speech Oct. 21.  Read the speech here.  Read the press release here.

For more information on all USDA Energy Initiatives go to the USDA Energy page here.

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