USDA Deputy Under Secretary Butch Blazer at FPL for Wood-to-Energy Roundtable

Arthur “Butch” Blazer, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, visited the FPL in Madison, Wis., recently to talk about wood-to-energy concerns in Wisconsin and the Midwest. Following a tour of FPL facilities and discussions with several project leaders, Blazer gathered a group of regional wood bioenergy leaders for an afternoon listening session.

Initiating the discussion, Blazer expressed his strong interest in being part of the discussion on the role of forest products in the renewable energy field. Blazer, who has had a long tenure with USDA and spent eight years as New Mexico’s state forester, stated his desire for an active, positive, and inclusive discussion.

Among the participants at the listening session were wood scientists and technology transfer authorities from FPL and the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, representatives from the logging and paper industries, academics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and its Great Lakes Bioenergy Resource Center, and top state natural resources officials. The discussion was moderated by Alan Rudie, supervisory research chemist at FPL and project leader for the new nanocellulose pilot plant at FPL.

Themes of the afternoon’s discussion included sustainability and job growth in regional forestry sectors, transportation and supply-chain issues, economies of scale, collaboration and cooperation among diverse natural resources entities, and the development of innovative markets for new and existing wood-to-energy products. When theories are put into practice, as was stressed by several participants, projects must take into account the limits of current transportation infrastructure and the long-term goals of providing sustainable, regional job growth. Forest product markets, including those for energy, must be diversified enough to provide long-term stability in any given forest-based economy.

Clearer communication was also stressed as a means to effective public engagement and community outreach. Developing consistent terminology for bioenergy communications was deemed essential. Engagement with diverse populations, including both urban and rural young people, to provide rationale for the healthy management of Federal forest lands was another active discussion topic. Effective outreach, proactive community engagement, and active discussions among professionals within existing forestry sectors help promote what Wisconsin State Forester Paul DeLong referred to as the “social license” for landowners to do forestry—to harvest and sell wood through active, sustainable forest management in order to satisfy various environmental, social, and economic values. Certification programs, such as Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law, have helped with this, said DeLong.

The key, DeLong said, is promoting synergistic growth where new markets are developed to strengthen existing efforts rather than crowd them out.

Returning to a theme brought up earlier in the session, Blazer restated his belief that it is important to reach out to young people who are asking the common question of “Why are we cutting trees down?” What we need to get across, said Blazer, is that the practice of forestry can be and is done “in a very respectful way… in a way that is helpful.” In everything we do, Blazer said, there must be a balance.

Creating forest management plans that reflect the localized needs of the ecosystem and communities of any given region is “critically important,” said Blazer. Speaking of the controversial new planning rule and its implementation, Blazer stressed that its success hinges on the active participation of those involved, from those in the forests on up to the Federal level.

“I’m optimistic that it’s going to happen.” Using what he heard at the FPL session, and similar recent meetings in Santa Fe and Seattle, affords Blazer the ability to incorporate insights and recommendations to inform his contacts in Washington, D.C. Engaging in conversations about bioenergy across many mission areas within USDA and
other agencies, such as the Department of Energy and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, is a primary goal for Blazer. In his concluding remarks, Blazer stated that the 1.5-hour listening session had been “very encouraging.”

“There is still work to do, of course,” said Blazer, “but you’re headed in the right direction.”

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By James T. Spartz, FPL Public Affairs Specialist