Monday, September 14, 2009

The Future of the Forests?

I enjoy reading the old accounts of the forests I call home. What a kaleidoscopic picture emerges from four centuries of conquistadors, traders, military men, botanists, speculators, prospectors, loggers, fugitives and poets.

And now, here’s one more view of the forests, through the eyes of a California software engineer. This gentleman has spent tens of millions of dollars purchasing property in Jackson County. (But how could such a rational man put so much faith in partners who are convinced that merely invoking the name of a sports star can add value to the land?)

Despite that, I would not underestimate our friend from California. He relied on more than puffery and slick marketing to amass his fortune. He knows the energy industry. He knows the forest products industry. He knows how to analyze data and make sense of the trends.

As a result, he has an informed perspective on the forests I call home. In his words:

…you also have in NC some potential for energy generation, there are no good wind or solar resources in your area but you have great biomass (e.g. > > > cellulosic ethanol) that can be farmed in a sustainable fashion - however this is a highly technical field that is largely blocked by current regulations in the US and will require community action not reaction…

With that sentence, he has broadened my view. Looking upon the tree-covered hills, I now see vast amounts of biomass waiting to be converted into cellulosic ethanol.

What a revelation!

Experts say the U.S. could produce cellulosic biomass equivalent to four billion barrels of crude oil a year, or 65% of American oil consumption. In Georgia, Range Fuels is already developing a cellulosic ethanol plant to use wood waste.

If America can justify turning Central Appalachia into a moonscape, then it can justify giving Southern Appalachia a close shave, if that’s what it takes to fill our gas tanks on the cheap.

Debates have raged in Congress about the fate of downed trees, trimmings and brush on federal land. Opponents of a ban on the use of National Forest biomass as feedstock for ethanol production argue that slash piles represent a squandered resource. “Why let it rot when we could run our cars on it?” they ask.

I can thank that absentee land owner from California for opening my eyes to the possibilities. If there’s one thing we have plenty of around here (besides unsold lots in golf course developments) it is…




Anonymous said...

Ahh, perhaps it is J. Patrick Kennedy you speak of, a man involved in the original Centex deals and a man who has profited immensely from our dear friends at Legasus. Mr. Kennedy has plans for the area, just ask - I did.
Yes, tell us more about this miracle genius, this man behind the curtain - Oz himself or maybe perhaps the Jaberwocky come to make sense of the rabbit hole.

GULAHIYI said...

Yes, indeed, Dr. Kennedy is the man. I'd left quite a few holes in this story, hoping others might fill the gaps.

Regarding this facet of the story, the case could be made that cellulosic ethanol is a relatively "clean and green" fuel source. However, should it come to pass in this region, we face the same conflict we've always faced in local land use - the almost irresistable pressure to gain short-term profits versus the exercise of restraint sufficient to ensure the long-term health of the environment. Too often, those short-term pressures prevail.

Some people can't see the forest for the biomass, and if Dr. Kennedy is in that category then a degree of caution is justified.

But I suspect this is a conversation between you and me and a brick wall. I just don't know how to make it any more clear than I have. (I'm trying to leave behind the ironic flourishes that only succeed in creating confusion.)

I find this whole enterprise quite discouraging, but for some inexplicable reason, persist with it.

Betty Cloer Wallace said...

Oh, my. Please stay on this, Gulahiyi and Ignatz.

GULAHIYI said...

Thanks, Betty. This was the product of my having spent a few minutes to overcome my complete ignorance of what Dr. Kennedy meant when he referred to "cellulosic ethanol." It appears to have an upside, yes, but many downsides, too. Best I can tell, 50 gallons of ethanol can be extracted from one "bone dry" ton of "wood waste." I'm flashing back on getting paid $5 for a load of pulpwood many years and many miles ago. Toting sticks out of the woods for pocket change might be one way to keep us peasants occupied in the future.
Dr. Kennedy is looking out for us.

Anonymous said...

Instead of giving certain County employees such exhorbitant raises, we could use that money toward buying up land in Jackson County for greenspace.

Our commissioner meetings should be packed. We get the kind of government equal to our efforts to make it fair and healthy.

I wonder if we could post meetings here?

A Voice In The Woods

GULAHIYI said...

"Voice," there might be some potential for acquiring some of that property by virtue of unpaid taxes. It has been a while since I've checked the status on Legasus' arrearage in payment of county property tax, but I suspect they still owe.

Agreed on gettng the govrnment we deserve. I understand the planning board cancelled their September meeting - "nothing to do" was quoted as the reason, which reminds me of that old saying, "Failure to plan is planning to fail."

Anonymous said...

Why have a planning board when the county can pay Mike Egan, intrepid land use attorney, many many thousands of dollars for his sage advice.
Apart from the fact that some of our county executives make very nice livings it may only be the tip of the iceberg since the county paid out some tremendous fees for consultants. Prior to his tenure with Jackson County Mr. Egan was just another bright attorney with an idea - why not specialize in land-use. It's a burgeoning industry and there really isn't anything other than an off the shelf legal degree one needs to be a "specialist".
And so a consultant was born. Perhaps Mr. Egan's greatest hit was his authorship of the county's bend over and grab your ankles approach to handing out vested rights to anyone with a million bucks and a hopeful story.
This brings us back to the good Dr. Kennedy who may yet try to claim ongoing vested rights to the land he bought back from Centex after its demise and from the land he is currently buying from Legasus.
Dr. Kennedy asserts that he does not engage in financial sleight of hand but some of the loan and financing arrangements for his various LLC incarnations seem to come right out of real estate bubble land.
Kennedy and Egan - weren't they a famous Irish vaudeville song and dance team.

Western North Carolina Writer's Underground said...

Kennedy and Eagan are just going to follow the money. Let's make the ends more 'green.' We've got solar, wind and mini-hydro possibilities here in WNC. We can use those on a community co-op basis to generate all the electricity we need (and then some). Kennedy could finance the hundreds of small-scale projects and Eagan could consult on them. Both could make money. Our communities can get clean electricity and water, sell power to the grid and water to TWSA. We need the trees to hold the soil (and for many other reasons). Humans aren't the problem. Humans not thinking are the problem.

Anonymous said...

Ok. I will broker the deal, taking (cough) a little cut for myself. Do y'all want a 'finder's fee"?

Grinning Like a Cheshire Cat :)

Western North Carolina Writer's Underground said...

No 'finder's fee.' I'd just like to see every community in WNC achieve true energy independence--not only from Middle Eastern Islamists and South American quasi-socialist-dictators but also from North American corporations that could care less about their customers.