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Monday, February 8, 2010

Could Alternative Energy Affect the North Country Trail?

biomass harvesting
harvesting biomass (Creative Commons photo by _Asea on Flickr)

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based on a news story in the Michigan Messenger

June Thaden, secretary of the Grand Traverse Hiking Club, has noted that "East of Guernsey Lake there’s a portion of the trail that we can’t even find because there was a clearcut."

It is possible that if the Renewable Portfolio Standards for alternative energy is adopted by Michigan, more areas of state forest could be not only clearcut, but clear cleaned.

State Forester Cara Bouchard commented that only about a third of the new growth that occurs each year is being removed. She felt that much more could be harvested each year to help meet energy needs without harm. One-fifth of Michigan is preserved in state forests, with about 55,000 acres logged each year.

However, even clearcut logging leaves slash and debris on the ground. Biomass harvesting takes all organics out of the forest. Because of the technology of biomass burning, all parts of the tree can be used for energy generation.

Generation of energy by burning biomass is not a completely new idea in northern Michigan. Cadillac has one wood burning plant, and Traverse City is considering the idea. Mancelona is definitely planning to build one. Fuel would need to come from nearby locations.

Ultimately, the question is going to be whether this type of harvesting is compatible with the recreational uses of state forests. This tension is no stranger to trail volunteers. State forests have been managed primarily for timber harvesting, and the NCT has usually been routed along section lines rather than in ways which will appeal to hikers. The reasons given have been directly related to the desire to maintain "timber management units" intact.

Thaden added that the state sometimes mandates logging buffer zones to protect recreational areas, "but even if they specify that in the contract, it doesn’t always happen." It can be noted that the buffer zones are often silly, consisting of one row of trees on each side of the trail. Trail volunteers have also seen many logging operations where, despite agreements, the logging company has used the trail as a skid road, obliterated all traces of the thru-route, and left mountains of slash which must be cleared.

Let's hope that if biomass harvesting is undertaken, that better agreements and monitoring can be worked out to protect recreational interests, including the North Country Trail.

This segment is on NCTA maps of Michigan

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