Woody biomass utilization is deriving energy from the trees and woody plants, including limbs, needles and other woody parts grown in a forest that are the by-products of forest management. 

Woody biomass utilization is deriving energy from the trees and woody plants, including limbs, needles and other woody parts grown in a forest that are the by-products of forest management. 

Biopower from woody biomass is typically generated one of two ways. First, a facility can directly burn wood to generate steam to drive a turbine. The second method, co-firing, involves using wood in place of a portion of the coal burned in conventional coal-fired power plants. Biopower facilities have a number of potential environmental impacts ranging from air quality emissions to increased pressure for more intensive harvesting on forestlands.

Conservation Concerns

Wood pellets are also a designated “carbon-neutral” fuel in European countries, making them in demand for companies seeking to meet government mandates for carbon reductions. In response to increasing demand from Europe, the wood pellet industry is focusing on sourcing wood from the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains in the southeastern United States.  

Much of this wood is whole tree unsuitable as saw timber that are clear-cut and hauled to pellet facilities. At these facilities, the trees are ground into chips, dried, and formed into pellets. The pellets are transported to ports where they are shipped to European power plants where they are burned with, or as a substitute for coal to produce energy. This flawed policy, which is certainly not “carbon neutral,” has serious impacts on birds and their habitats.

Impact to Birds

The rapidly expanding wood pellet industry in eastern North Carolina is adding to the pressure on hardwood swamps and other native forests to manufacture wood pellets for export to Europe. Loss of mature hardwood forests harms numerous species of birds dependent on these forests for survival, such as the Brown-headed Nuthatch, Swainson’s Warbler and the Prothonotary Warbler

A 2013 assessment by the National Wildlife Federation and the Southern Environmental Law Center concluded that it’s “probable that these and a variety of other species dependent on natural forest stands could experience further population and/or range declines” as a result of timber harvesting for the wood pellet industry. 

Many of the birds harmed by the expanding wood pellet industry are the focus of conservation efforts to reverse long-term population declines resulting in part from the historical loss of wetland hardwood forests in the southeastern United States.

Population Decline

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 60 percent of the 30 million acres of bottomland forests that once covered the southeastern United States have been destroyed. As a result, numerous species dependent on these forests are rare and/or declining, and of conservation concern. 

At least 22 species of birds dependent on coastal plain bottomland hardwood forests are the focus of conservation efforts. Sixteen of these are neotropical migrants that breed in coastal plain hardwood forests and winter in the Caribbean and Central and South America.  

One of the only Atlantic coastal plain populations of the Cerulean Warbler occurs along the Roanoke River in North Carolina, within the sourcing area for two major wood pellet manufacturing facilities. Cerulean Warblers have declined by 8.2 percent annually in the southeastern coastal plain over the most recent 35-year assessment period. Across its range, the species is declining at one of the fastest rates of any North American songbird. 

The distinct Wayne’s subspecies of Black-throated Green Warbler only occurs in the hardwood and cypress wetland forests in the coastal areas of the Carolinas and Virginia, a target sourcing area for the wood pellet industry. Its small population is declining by 2.6 percent annually.  

For a full list of birds impacted by loss of mature forests in the Atlantic Coastal Plain, see below.

National Policy Goals

Audubon will focus on advancing needed bioenergy policies while protecting biodiversity and habitat conservation. Frequently, these objectives can be realized simultaneously with sound, science-based policies and management. 

Audubon supports the development of international and global life-cycle carbon accounting and protocols for forest harvesting and bioenergy production to avert growth of industry policies, like harvesting of whole trees for wood pellets that yield no carbon benefits, by 2050. 

In addition, Audubon advocates for improved carbon management rules, policies and practices on federal and state lands within the United States, in order to protect forests and habitats. State and local chapters also advance these priorities, working on local projects, and paying special attention to Important Bird Areas (IBAs), priority forest blocks and flyways. 

North Carolina Policy Goals

In North Carolina, Audubon continues to work with policy leaders at all levels to protect habitats and discourage wholesale deforestation. ANC has encouraged the General Assembly to require the adoption of forest management guidelines or adoption of third party sustainability standards by power generators and biofuel producers. Such guidelines would require that forest management plans adopted by the power and fuel generators will be protective of forest productivity, wildlife habitat, riparian buffers and other sensitive areas. 

Further, suppliers shall be required to certify that harvests were conducted in accordance with the requirements of these forest management plans and to work with certification schemes like the Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

Audubon NC is part of a coalition of conservation groups calling for a public hearing and further environmental review of a proposed wood pellet export project at the Port of Wilmington. The Southern Environmental Law Center submitted comments joined by Natural Resources Defense Council, Dogwood Alliance, Audubon North Carolina, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth US, Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and North Carolina Coastal Federation.  

Across the Carolinas, more than 4,500 people also requested a public hearing and further review of this controversial project.

The proposed project involves the lease of state land at the state port to a wood pellet manufacturer, Enviva LP, for the development of a wood pellet export facility.  The wood pellets would be produced at three new wood pellet plants that would use wood from southeastern North Carolina and South Carolina forests. The pellets would be shipped to Europe, where they would be burned to generate electricity.  

Birds of Conservation Concern Harmed by Loss of Mature Hardwood Forests in the Atlantic Coastal Plain

  • Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Swallow-tailed Kite
  • Mississippi Kite
  • Yellow-billed Cuckoo
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Red-headed Woodpecker
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee
  • Acadian Flycatcher
  • Wood Thrush
  • Carolina Wren
  • Yellow-throated Vireo
  • Wayne's Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Yellow-throated Warbler
  • Cerulean Warbler
  • Hooded Warbler
  • Prothonotary Warbler
  • Worm-eating Warbler
  • Swainson's Warbler
  • Lousiana Waterthrush
  • Kentucky Warbler

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