Should I Burn Wood?

Environmental scientist Robert Cabin pointed out recently in a story that ran in Earth Island Journal that political liberals in general, and environmentalists in particular, can put an inordinate amount of faith in science, to the point where it begins to resemble religious fundamentalism. “When it comes to public policy making, we often hear that we should base our decisions on ‘the best available science’,” Cabin writes. “Want to know how to reform our education system? Look at what the studies say. Want to improve our health care system? Examine all the research on the subject. We are happy to place ourselves at the mercy of the “experts.””

I was thinking about this the other night when I went to see Dartmouth Professor Andrew Friedland give a talk entitled: Should I Burn Wood?

Friedland has gotten some buzz recently for calling into question current carbon accounting practices where it comes to fuel wood. His research shows that deep, mineral soil carbon reserves can be affected by logging, and he theorizes that disturbing the surface of the soil might stimulate microbial activity, which in turn might cause deep soil carbon reserves to be released into the environment. He’s spreading the word that wood as fuel may have a greater effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels than previously thought.

Friedland is not anti-wood; he made it clear in the presentation that all energy comes with a cost. (He exempted passive solar, though some of the Dartmouth Medical School alums in the audience could have brought up the specter of melanoma.) He says he burns wood himself. He’s not an activist, he’s an academic – a likable guy who worked the room like an Environmental Science professor, trying to stimulate and challenge his students.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure a lot of the people there were challenged. I think they were just confused. Friedland opened the talk by saying (and I’m paraphrasing) that wood may be the lesser of two evils in some cases, but here are a bunch of reasons to fear it. Some of what he went on to report was old news, echoes of the Manomet study of a few years back that left some with the idea that burning wood is worse for the environment than coal. (Because if you measure CO2 emissions at a smokestack, and turn the fact that wood is renewable and part of the terrestrial carbon cycle, and fossil fuels are not, into a footnote, then yes, you can lump ‘em all in together, though it’s sort of like comparing the grams of fat in a donut and a handful of almonds and then deciding the donut is better for you because there’s less total fat.)

Friedland never went into detail on his original work – the soil stuff. We were told that logging disrupts deep soil carbon, but we weren’t told what kind of logging. Firewood procurement seemed to be associated with clearcutting and intense soil disturbance, when in practice the vast majority of the firewood being burned by the people in that room probably came from a selective harvest, marked by a forester, that was conducted either in winter when snow protected the soil or with modern tracked equipment that minimizes soil damage or both. He kept using the phrase habitat fragmentation or forest fragmentation to mean logging, which was misleading at best.

It’s not at all fair to expect someone to cover everything in a 40-minute talk. We’ll follow up on his research, try to learn more, and if there’s something there, report on it objectively. The bad taste the talk left in my mouth had nothing to do with Friedland, or his work, but with the way science obscured the simple answer to the original question. That YES, considering the alternatives, if you’re able bodied and live in the Northeast you should absolutely burn wood.

He did mention some of the peripheral benefits of wood -- that it’s affordable, that it provides local jobs, that a working forest tends to stay a forest and is thus a great means of conserving land – but judging by the vibe in the room, none of these points were scientific enough and were quickly overwhelmed by the scary numbers coming out of the fancy monitors at the end of a smokestack. “Does a woodstove affect air quality in a room?” one person asked. “I don’t have a study at hand but it seems like it must.” The global specter of deforestation was raised, though it’s a safe bet that no one there was importing and burning rosewood. One person in the audience reported that a study he’d read said that only a small percentage of people in Vermont could burn wood, after which it would become unsustainable – a fear with entirely theoretical grounds that’s not at all reflected in any woods or community I’ve ever seen here, including the intensively harvested places.

At the end of the presentation one guy raised his hand and said: “I wasn’t feeling good about burning wood when I came here, and now I feel even worse.”

My guess is that Friedland saw this as a healthy statement. He’d succeeded in challenging his students and the whole notion that wood is carbon neutral. But to someone outside of academia who cares about the planet and the rural economy, the disheartened guy’s sentiment was horribly depressing. That one scientist’s power point presentation could so obscure the big picture seemed the opposite of enlightened.

Cabin wrote, in the Earth Island Journal piece, that rather than providing clarity, “scientizing” an issue often leads to greater intellectual uncertainty. More research reveals previously unknown complexity and more questions. That’s exactly what Friedland’s work is doing, that’s exactly what Manomet did with their controversial report. It’s healthy in a scientific sense – bless science for being restless and poking things from every angle. But when a study becomes a cherry-picked bullet point in the hands of an activist with an axe to grind, or cover for a politician looking for easy answers, or a merry-go-round for a concerned citizen who’s trying to do the right thing and is just being spun around in circles and left to drop by the lack of context, well then it can be unhealthy, too.

  1. Sandy and Jim Dannis → in Dalton, NH
    Dec 13, 2013

    Thanks Dave for an interesting piece.  To add some fuel to the fire (sorry), and not to pick on Dartmouth, here’s a link to a press report on another Dartmouth College research effort that has a different perspective:

    I haven’t gotten the full study yet, but the summaries suggest that intensive harvesting in northern softwood forests may reduce climate change because of the increased reflectivity (albedo) of snow-covered vs. forested terrain. To oversimplify, if you clearcut a northern spruce/fir forest, the snapshot of the terrain as seen by sunlight in the winter changes from dark green to white, so more sunlight is reflected, resulting in less warming.

    Putting all the studies together will not, as you point out, amount to any compelling conclusion.  But they do let a person find some support for almost any position!

  2. k jackson → in montpelier
    Dec 13, 2013

    This was a very timely and thought-provoking article.  I was moved to search around on line, found this link:

    which answered some of my questions.  It is indeed a complicated subject, I would like to hear more arguments and observations on all sides.

    I do hope we won’t damage the long range life of the northern forest by ill use and short-sighted decisions.

  3. Carolyn → in East Wallingford
    Dec 13, 2013

    “...It’s healthy in a scientific sense – bless science for being restless and poking things from every angle. But when a study becomes a cherry-picked bullet point in the hands of an activist with an axe to grind, or cover for a politician looking for easy answers, or a merry-go-round for a concerned citizen who’s trying to do the right thing and is just being spun around in circles and left to drop by the lack of context, well then it can be unhealthy, too.”

    All I can say to this is: YES. Yes. Yes.

  4. Malcolm MacKenzie → in Naples, NY
    Dec 14, 2013

    I am reading this before a cozy wood fire in my living room. The fresh snow outside falls silently. The cherry wood burning was harvested two summers ago from a hedgerow after it had fallen across a pasture fence.  The upcoming syrup season’s wood is stacked at the sugar house awaiting the evaporator’s beckoning. The dead ash will live again as a delightful breaking of fast. Sometimes a poem’s meter is clearer than science’s measure.

  5. Andy Crosier → in Shaftsbury
    Dec 15, 2013

    Thoughtful reading Dave. What was he comparing wood burning to? Is there more or less co2 emission with the cleaner and more complete burn of pellets or was he comparing with slow burning wood logs?  Will be looking for more follow up on this. Thanks Andy

  6. John Fox → in Fairbanks, Alaska
    Dec 17, 2013


    Thank you for succinctly and eloquently putting into words what I have observed over 38 years of teaching, research, and service in the field of Natural Resources Management.  Trained as a “scientist” I had to learn that “management” involved more than just “science”; it involved the integration of the biophysical system with the socio-economic-political systems.  Also I came to perceive that even “science”, with it’s ever-increasing “fragmentation” into tiny islands of specialization, can only offer a blind man’s confidence about his little patch of the elephant.

    Thanks also to the others who commented – my faith in common sense is restored!

    The Blind Men and the Elephant
    John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

    “And so these men of Indostan
    Disputed loud and long,
    Each in his own opinion
    Exceeding stiff and strong,
    Though each was partly in the right,
    And all were in the wrong!”

    —John Fox

  7. Jonathan Teller-Elsberg → in Norwich, VT
    Dec 18, 2013

    I think I might be the person you refer to who “reported that a study he’d read said that only a small percentage of people in Vermont could burn wood, after which it would become unsustainable.” The study I mentioned at Friedland’s talk is the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan, at

    It says that currently (or at least, as of about 2011), Vermont gets 14% of its heating from “biomass” which I think is nearly all cord wood or wood pellets. A small bit of bio-based heating oil and maybe a smidge of grass pellets is in the mix.

    At Friedland’s talk, I (mis)quoted from memory that the study says Vermont can sustainably get 20% of the state’s heating needs with wood. I was remembering incorrectly. Looking back at the report, it says Vermont can sustainably go up to 30%. See volume 2, page 200.

    What isn’t clear to me on a quick re-skimming of the report is whether that estimate includes assumptions about improving weatherization of buildings. Can we get 30% of heat from wood with our buildings as they are, or only after the average building improves its insulation and air leakage situation?

  8. Jonathan Teller-Elsberg → in Norwich, VT
    Dec 18, 2013

    By coincidence, a recent NPR blog post touches on a similar question—not about burning wood, but about how, why, and when scientific information is helpful to the general conversation and how, why, and when it can get in the way of a useful conversation. See A line from it that made me think of this blog post is “Many people assume the science is way beyond them (and of course, an expert level of understanding probably is beyond most of us), but simultaneously fail to appreciate how profoundly they lack the basics. When the basics are presented, they’re often sandwiched between some daunting math and some scary jargon, which don’t exactly boost overall palatability.” If I read your post correctly, I think you are suggesting that Friedland did some of this sandwiching of basics between relatively daunting specialty nuance, which resulted in confusion for at least some attendees.

  9. Dan Gavin → in Eugene, Oregon
    Dec 18, 2013

    Kudos to Dave Mance for expanding on an already thought-provoking lecture, one that I would have liked to have seen.  While I also am not fond of hearing of ecosystems boiled down to carbon units, I can’t help but chime in on a few points.  First, as the slides show, its the age of carbon coming out of the soils that is at issue…and since carbon is released for decades, that carbon is at least decades old.  But decades is how long it takes to grow the forest back, too.  Northern hardwoods have been cleared several times, and if really old (1000’s of years) carbon was to be released, it would have been after initial clearing and grazing in the 1800’s.  Second, although this disagrees with traditional forestry concepts, there is newer evidence that ecosystems continue to serve as carbon sinks even after canopy trees reach old age and begin dying (Luyssaert 2008 in Nature).  Other recent work in redwood forests, 2000 years old, show they continue to be an increasingly effective carbon sink over time.  Old forests are rare in the northeast not only because of harvest, but ice storms and wind, and they are not in our memory.  However, they were much more common during pre-settlement, as described in the nice Northern Woodlands story on Maine’s presettlement forests.  I believe in the value of allowing forests to get old simply to bring back a nearly extinct habitat.  And if old northern hardwood forests continue to be a carbon sink (as suggested by recent studies), then great.

    One more comment regarding burning wood, because I can’t resist.  I am a recent convert to pellet stoves.  Here in Oregon, pellets come from small-diameter Douglas-fir from thinning operations and waste from lumber mills.  Pellet stoves emit about 25% of the particulates of an EPA-certified wood stove and are not banned when my town is under an air stagnation advisory.  While my pellet stove (made in VT!) requires some electricity and is a little noisy, there is minimal labor involved.  I don’t know the economics, but right now pellets are cheaper per btu than firewood, split and delivered.

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