Can the Biofuel Industry Access Biomass from Non-Industrial Private Forests?

In an effort to become more energy independent, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, interest has turned to the use of alternative fuels. Biomass-based energy production has been hailed as a key element of this strategy.

Funding source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agriculture and Food Research Initiative

It also holds potential to recharge rural economies hard hit by job losses in manufacturing and agriculture over the past several decades (USDA, 2009). To date, most studies of energy biomass production have focused on the technical/economic side of the equation. Far less attention has been paid to social and cultural factors that may affect the feasibility of energy biomass production.

The study addresses this gap by asking three nested questions:

  • Will private forest landowners (PFLs) produce and sell raw materials to wood-based biofuel production companies in sufficient quantities to meet their needs?
  • What are the opportunities and concerns of communities, residents, and existing wood-based industries regarding these facilities?
  • How will communities and residents respond to these opportunities and concerns?

Methodologically, this study uses four steps. First, we identify locations to conduct subsequent research procedures by developing a longitudinal database consisting of social and environmental data for all counties in the eastern US. Then, using this database, we identify clusters of similar counties from which representative study sites will be selected capable of maximizing our understanding of the variance in conditions across the Eastern forest region.

Next, we determine if PFLs are willing to participate in the biofuel industry in sufficient quantities to meet their needs. To do this, we conduct key-informant interviews and facilitated group discussions with PFLs, local community leaders, and forest industry representatives to determine interests and concerns related to biomass extraction from private forests. The data collected in the second step will provide diverse perspectives on issues related to biomass-based energy development and the roles of PFLs in this emerging industry.

We then identify opportunities and concerns expressed by PFLs and the general public about potential obstacles associated with forest-based biofuel production particularly as it relates to local economic development, well-being, and existing wood-based industries. Through an the analysis of available secondary data, and a content analysis of data drawn from the KIs and facilitated groups, we identify the relationship of biomass harvesting to social and economic conditions and the potential impact of the biofuels industry on existing wood-based industries. This is an analytical step in our overall research program; its findings are essential to the development of our work on the lager region-wide survey described next.

Information from the KIs, coupled to that drawn from the facilitated discussions, is essential for designing relevant survey questions. Once KIs are completed, we will synthesize this material and report the findings back to participants through an executive summary. Their feedback will also be incorporated in the mail survey.

Thus, our proposed approach uses in-depth studies of a subject in a particular context, and a survey component to facilitate our ability to determine the generalizability of findings.

Finally, we assess community receptivity to the biofuels industry. To accomplish this we develop and conduct a region-wide survey of PFLs and the general public to determine perceived strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats associated with the development of biofuel facilities and their impact on regional forests. The development of this survey follows from the KIs and facilitated community discussions in three areas of the Eastern region.

While Steps 1 -3 are place focused, this step takes those findings from purposefully selected sites to the study region encompassing the Eastern forest. Doing this will lead to a more generalizable understanding of PFLs and their communities and, in the process, provide a validation assessment of perspectives, needs, and willingness to participate in biomass markets.

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Can the Biofuel Industry Access Biomass from Non-Industrial Private Forests?