Wood production systems in the U.S. South

NCASI and the U.S. Forest Service have completed a project titled Current and Potential Capabilities of Wood Production Systems in the Southeastern U.S. Results have been published in a special issue of Biomass and Bioenergy (Vol. 34, Issue 12, December 2010). Dr. Eric Vance of NCASI served as project leader. The following text was abstracted from the Preface of the special issue.

Forests of the southeastern U.S. contribute 60 percent and 16 percent of the U.S. and global timber production, respectively, and provide immense economic and environmental contributions to the region. Southeastern forests are characterized by a diversity of non-industrial private, institutional, industrial, federal, and state owners with a wide range of objectives. These forests face unprecedented change due to urban development and transitions in industry ownership from vertically-integrated companies to institutional owners with varying time horizons and management objectives. Overlaying these changes is the emergence of new markets for biomass energy that could create opportunities for landowners but increase pressure on forest resources.

This special issue of Biomass and Bioenergy provides a framework to begin to address the challenges and opportunities arising from increasing demands for biomass from southeastern U.S. forests. Experts provide their best assessments of factors influencing the capability of southeastern “wood production systems” to provide a sustainable supply of fiber to meet future demands. A range of issues underlying this framework for the region are addressed, including (1) the silviculture, productivity, and financial returns of pine plantations managed for traditional products and biomass, (2) the area and distribution of lands potentially available for pine plantations, (3) management of short-rotation hardwood systems and their potential contribution to regional fiber production, (4) factors influencing the competitiveness of forestry investments in the Southeast compared to South America and other regions, (5) implications of renewable energy standards for timber markets and fiber supply, and (6) the relationship between carbon sequestration and forest management for traditional products and bioenergy. Among the noteworthy findings from these assessments are the following:

  • Productivity of southeastern pine plantations has increased four-fold over the last 40 years and could continue to increase through management practices that enhance the availability and utilization of site resources and adoption of these practices by a broader segment of landowners.
  • Existing pine resources will be relied upon to meet the bulk of near-term demands for biomass. Factors affecting biomass supply include its practical availability, the infrastructure of logging and electrical generation, shifts in industrial southern forest ownership from vertically-integrated forest products companies to institutional investors, and competition with traditional wood-using industries.
  • Forest residues alone may provide a temporary biomass source important in some localities but small relative to potential future demands. Residue utilization is limited by transportation distance, harvesting and utilization technologies, and levels of conventional harvesting.
  • Private pine plantation area could expand from about 14.2 million hectares in 2007 to 15.6 and 15.8 million hectares by 2017 and 2027, respectively. Projected pine plantation expansion is negatively associated with factors such as soil hydricity, slope, and population growth, which is assumed to increase at the same rate as in 1980 to 2000. Alabama and Mississippi are the states having the largest projected increase in private pine plantation area.
  • Hardwood plantations can provide fiber for niche markets with specific requirements but their contribution to overall biomass supply has been limited thus far by high establishment and management costs, restrictive site requirements, and variable and uncertain growth rates.
  • Managing forests for a mix of traditional products and biomass may offer the greatest returns on investment for landowners and provide flexibility to adapt to changing market conditions.
  • Rapid tree growth rates and relatively high investment returns favor vertically-integrated forest products companies based in South America while U.S. competitiveness benefits from a more favorable and lower-risk investment climate.
  • Renewable electricity portfolio standards could have significant impacts on supply and inventory of woody biomass. Major structural changes in feedstock supply and the diversity of biomass sources would be required to meet increases in demand that may be associated with renewable electricity standards.
  • Bioenergy and carbon issues are intertwined. Although forests preserved intact with little or no management may store more carbon initially, more intensively managed forests with harvested biomass used for products have greater long-term carbon benefits that increase with the proportion of biomass used to replace fossil fuels.

Financial support for the analyses in this special issue was provided by the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station and NCASI.

Contact Information