UI turning dying Johnson County pines into biofuel

Invasive species causing problems across Eastern Iowa

Orlan Love
Published: January 17 2013 | 5:30 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 10:11 am in
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Problem: Johnson County has 24 acres of dead and dying invasive species-infested pine trees and little if any money to clear the environmental wasteland for productive use.

Problem: The University of Iowa’s Sustainability Office is well short of its goal to meet 40 percent of the institution’s energy needs through sustainable sources by 2020.

Solution: The UI hires a contractor to cut and grind the Johnson County trees into biomass to be burned with coal in the university’s steam-generating boilers. The university ups its sustainable energy quotient, while the conservation department replaces an environmental nightmare with prairie and oak savanna jewels.

“Collaboration is enabling us to make the best of a bad situation,” said Harry Graves, director of the Johnson County Conservation Department.

Once the pines and spruces are cleared and the invasive plants subdued, the department will set about returning the land to the vegetative communities prevalent before European settlement.

Graves said his staff has been removing the dead trees — located mostly at the county’s flagship F.W. Kent Park near Tiffin — for firewood and mulch, but the trees are dying faster than they can be removed.

“Letting nature take its course is not an option,” he said.

A rogue’s gallery of invasive species — including garlic mustard, exotic honeysuckles and Canada thistles — would turn the ruined pine groves into an environmentally hostile jungle, he said.

Graves said he has been working for more than a year with Department of Natural Resources district forester Mark Vitosh to find a use for the resource.

The search was fruitless until Graves learned that the UI was looking to expand its use of biomass at its main power plant on Burlington Street, which since 2003 has been supplementing coal with oat hulls procured under an agreement with the Quaker plant in Cedar Rapids.

While the UI will “be paying a little more” for the wood biomass than for the fuel equivalence of coal, “this project allows us to gain the data and experiential knowledge that will allow us to further develop the concept of using local, sustainably managed biomass as fuel,” said Liz Christiansen, director of the university’s Office of Sustainability.

Gaining knowledge

Between 8 percent and 13 percent of the energy used by the university is provided by the oat hulls, she said.

“This project may move that up by 1 percent or so, but the real value here is in the data and experiential knowledge to be gained,” she said.

That knowledge could become even more valuable if the state’s millions of ash trees start succumbing to the emerald ash borer, which has been detected in northeast Iowa, Vitosh said.

Graves said Bill Miller Logging of Dubuque began clearing and harvesting the trees on Jan. 4, with the work expected to be complete by the end of the month.

The Kent Park trees, combined with out-of-place cedars and alien black locust trees growing on about 4 acres of sand prairie at the Ciha Fen, will yield about 1,800 tons of biomass, he said.

“We have literally thousands of trees dying in Kent Park right now,” said Dave Wehde, the department’s natural resources manager. “They are pretty much an eyesore and a fire hazard.”

Planting practices

Such plantings were common in the 1960s and ’70s, when county conservation boards were first established in Iowa. They served their purpose at the time, providing beauty and wildlife habitat, but the non-native trees were not sustainable over the long haul, Wehde said.

The failure of these plantings underscores the importance of planting species native to their specific area, Graves said.

The Linn County Conservation Department recently dealt with a similar situation involving about 50 acres of dead and dying pines on four plots at its Matsell Bridge Recreation Area.

The county not only rid itself of its unwanted pineries, but also netted $18,000 on the sale of the timber to a Dubuque logger, said Dennis Goemaat, the department’s deputy director.

Like the Kent Park trees, the Linn County pines were planted mostly in the 1960s, before conservationists understood the negative implications of non-native vegetation, Goemaat said.

Clearing of the timbers began two years ago and was completed last summer, said Dana Kellogg, the department’s natural resources specialist.

Some of the harvest was sold for construction poles, with the bulk of it ground for use as landscape mulch, pulpwood for paper manufacturers and biomass for energy generation, he said.

“We just hit it at the right time,” said Kellogg.

Although county workers will be exterminating invasive species for at least two more years, some areas have been replanted with a goal of returning the area to the prairies and oak savannas that were there before settlement.

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