BRISTOL, VERMONT — On a hot June day in Vermont, I poke my head into the gaping mouth of a twelve-foot-tall combustion chamber and watch as the floodlight shines inward, giving the belly of this fuel-hungry beast a sweltering ambiance. It takes eight hundred tons of fuel wood to feed the furnace that heats this high school through one October-to-May season. Over thirty public schools in this state alone have converted their heating systems from fossil fuel to wood fuel, which they burn in the form of matchbook-sized wood chips.
“Biofuel” has become something of a buzzword these days. While talk of corn-based biofuel populates the Midwest, many people in the Northeast are returning to the forests, and for good reasons: wood is less expensive than oil, puts less CO2 into the atmosphere, and can be grown renewably right here in our own backyard. But there is some concern about what this increasing demand for fuel wood will mean for the forests of the Northeast.
David Brynn, forestry faculty member at the University of Vermont and director of Vermont Family Forests, a small nonprofit located in the town of Bristol, has been mulling over these concerns for years. “Before anything,” David explains, “we have to dramatically reduce our fuel use by being more energy efficient and conservative, so that we don’t take more trees out of the forest than we have to. Then, we need to figure out how to sustainably produce fuel wood from local forests so that it is equitably accessible for all who need it.”
Weaving these ideas together, David has been working with a crew of forest professionals, students, and teachers to create the Vermont Eco-Wood Energy Project, a model for supplying and utilizing fuel wood based on four strategies: sustainable production, efficient use, local sourcing, and fair access. “The Vermont Eco-Wood Energy Project aims to cultivate workable systems for meeting our fuel wood needs while supporting the health of our forests, rather than degrading them,” David tells me, as we walk through a forest stand where students have been inventorying and harvesting trees. He points out signs of a healthy working forest — no-cut buffers around a small stream, little sign of residual stand damage, minimal soil compaction, gently sloping skid trails and logging roads, a handful of downed trees and standing snags left on site for wildlife habitat and nutrient cycling.
Over the past year, the project has been working with two wood-heated public high schools to figure out how well these goals work in practice. There are some challenges to face, such as the need to establish more local wood chipping facilities and to train more loggers to work with low-impact harvesting equipment. But there are also new doors opening as more people experiment with the model. In Bristol, Vermont, for instance, two forests near the high school will serve as wood suppliers, a local chipping company is ready to buy logs from those forests, and students are being trained in forest monitoring.
The answer to what increasing demand for fuel wood will mean for our forests may very well depend on how successfully people can work together in the Northeast, through projects like Vermont Eco-Wood Energy, to shape the transition from fossil fuels to wood fuels into a benefit for forests and people alike.