This has been a frustrating week. Maybe for the thousandth time, I’m reminded that fuel bills for most New Englanders are completely subject to the decisions made by far-away investors and global leaders, most of whom are radically disconnected from the people whose lives their actions intimately affect. 

Whether it’s perceptions that “Saudi Arabia and Russia are having a strong and fruitful collaboration to keep the price of oil high and rising” from NPR or the president’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal causing oil prices to “swing wildly,” as CNN Money and others described the market on May 8, geopolitical events will keep people guessing about what will come next and how it will affect their ability to pay for heat and transportation. Chris Brooks wood chip pile crpd

It doesn’t have to be this way. Options for greater domestic energy independence are well within reach that can help insulate us from international events. And since the Northeast consumes the vast majority of the heating oil in the U.S., it’s especially important that we look for alternatives. Even so, the shift toward renewable heating – especially the high-efficiency, automated wood pellet boilers and furnaces the Northern Forest Center promotes—is slow. 

High oil prices make automated wood heat more economically attractive, so it's good news for the wood heating industry that oil prices exceeded $70/barrel on May 7 for the first time since 2014. And yet, it’s infuriating to think about the struggling families, towns, farmers, loggers and small businesses that will all be hit hard by these higher fossil fuel prices. 

Wood pellet heat is inherently local—it’s immediately tangible and accessible. Anyone  northern New England or New York can see where their wood pellets come from over the course of an afternoon—moving from the forests that produce the wood, to the mills that process the pellets, to the local companies that deliver them. We can talk to landowners about their forest stewardship goals, hear from loggers about changes to the forest economy that have made their livelihood more precarious, watch harvests that foster long-term forest health, and, at the end of the day, feel proud when we heat with wood. You can’t do that with fossil fuels (nor would many of us want to hang out on, say, an oil field in the Middle East!). 

By Julie Renaud Evans

After 30 years of practicing both forestry and community planning in northern New England, I can confidently say that Community Forest projects are a great way for communities to meet a mix of conservation and community goals across ecology, economics, recreation, and education. 

Milan Community Forest CelebrationI remember in 2005 when the town of Errol, New Hampshire, was closely watching the changes in the forest industry, the strong real estate market, and also the growing interest in developing rural areas. A particularly astute town leader recognized the value 13 Mile Woods—then a privately owned property along NH Route 16 and the Androscoggin River—as a scenic gateway to the town. Today the town owns and manages that property as a Community Forest.

13 Mile Woods Community Forest is an important resource that provides annual revenue from sustainable timber management and attracts visitors to enjoy the 11-mile recreation trail within the property. Most importantly, this gateway to the town and all its special qualities are forever protected from development by a conservation easement held by the State of New Hampshire.

In another example, the residents of Milan, New Hampshire, were motivated to create a Community Forest by their concerns about the quality of forest management in the region and its potential long-term effect on local sawmills and other wood product companies. They wanted to acquire land to ensure that well-managed forests would forever supply timber to these industries. They also wanted to connect other protected forestland to achieve large-scale protection of wildlife habitat. Milan has secured the first 1,393 contiguous acres for its Community Forest (with a goal of 5,000 acres), which will be sustainably managed for timber products and provide important wildlife habitat. 

By Maura Adams

“Oil prices are low.”

“There’s more interest in heat pumps.”

“We’ve seen a lot of misinformation in the press.”

We hear statements like these all the time in the Northeast to explain why Automated Wood Heating systems haven’t taken off like they should. But this time I wasn’t in Montpelier, VT, or Augusta, Maine, I was in Upper Austria: the birthplace of wood pellet boilers, where everyone knew about Automated Wood Heat, everyone celebrated it, and sales were stable and seamless—or so we thought. After all, 35% of dwellings in Upper Austria are heated with wood (including district heating) and wood pellet boilers are common in other parts of Europe as well.

Learning that the Europeans have experienced problems similar to ours was disappointing. On one hand, if they’re so far ahead of us and still facing these challenges, how can we expect to overcome them? On the other, it affirmed that our Automated Wood Heat market can still develop, even in the face of challenges.

By: Rob Riley

Last fall, I attended a rural development conversation in Danville, Virginia. It was one of those rare opportunities where the invite-only event seemed to mirror the conversations we were having at the Center about our continued evolution and how we could be most effective serving the communities of the Northern Forest. 

Organizations at this conference hailed from communities with much larger populations, significant built environments, strong organizational and public capacity, and engaged leadership. However, these places—labeled by some as “micropolitans”—are facing problems similar to the ones we face in the Northern Forest region: loss of young people, a general concern about the lack (or sustainability) of growth, and ability to equitably distribute wealth throughout a given community. Attendees were eager to discuss millennials, winning strategies and new forms of investment.

One theme that emerged quickly for me—and was striking—was how seemingly disconnected these communities were from their surrounding natural landscape. Other than citing a river that ran through the city, little was said about the natural amenities that differentiated that place from others. It became very apparent that the communities of the Northern Forest and our emerging approach to community development is quite unique. Our core emphasis is on how to capitalize on the unique natural assets and stewardship of those assets when seeking to drive population and business growth.