GREENVILLE, SC - The world's largest wood pellet fuel manufacturer Enviva Holdings, established $5 million, 10-year program that it says is designed to protect tens of thousands of acres of bottomland forests in northeast North Carolina and southeast Virginia. It will also help shield Enviva from environmental critics, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, who say the company's use of forests for fuel threatens the environment.
The Enviva Forest Conservation Fund will focus on about 35 North Carolina and Virginia counties that include about 6 million acres of forests of all types. Of this total, about 20 percent are bottomland forests – low-lying, marshy areas near rivers and streams that are home to tree species such as cypress, gum and oak. Many of these bottomlands are in the Albemarle Sound drainage basin along the Roanoke, Chowan, Meherrin, Nottoway and Blackwater rivers.
Enviva Holdings, LP says it is the world’s largest producer of wood pellets, a renewable and sustainable energy source used to generate electricity and heat. Its subsidiaries own and operate six plants in the southeastern United States, employing 600 to produce about 2.2 million metric tons of wood pellets annually. These shipped mostly to power plants in the United Kingdom and Europe that previously were fueled by coal, enabling them to reduce their carbon footprint by about 80 percent.
These conversions of large coal-burning power plants to wood for (co-)firing in Europe have resulted in the explosive growth of wood pellet exports from North America, most of which originate in the forests of the southern United States, says the National Resources Defense Council. It cites a Wall Street Journal report that documents that Enviva, the South's largest exporter of wood pellets, sources wood for its pellet-manufacturing mill in Ahoskie, North Carolina, from clearcut wetland forests in the Mid-Atlantic Coastal ecoregion. That mill produces approximately 400,000 tons of wood pellets per year for export to Europe as fuel for electricity, NRDC says.
Enviva marine terminal.
The Enviva Forest Conservation Fund plans to award matching-fund grants to nonprofits to permanently protect ecologically sensitive areas and conserve working forest, focusing on the Virginia-North Carolina coastal plain - an area where it operates three wood pellet production facilities and a deep-water marine terminal.
“Although we are small – in 2014 our entire industry accounted for less than one-tenth of one percent of America’s forest inventory – as a young company in a new field, we want to be known for always doing the right thing,” said John Keppler, CEO of Enviva.
“Enviva has always believed there are special places in the forest that should remain so. For instance, we have never harvested nor have we accepted wood from old growth forests.”
In addition to the grants, Enviva says its forest fund has identified four types of sensitive bottomland forest ecosystems, which will be priority conservation targets. Enviva says that although its "wood comes from areas other than bottomland forests, Enviva will work with the Endowment to catalog and protect these four sensitive habitats, and to document that [Enviva] and its suppliers do not cause them harm."
Enviva also says a science-based review team will develop "enhanced forestry practices for working bottomland forests, building on the generations-old tradition of sustainable forestry for these lands." Measures to define and protect sensitive areas will be incorporated into its wood supply practices, Enviva says.
“Enviva’s investment in environmental stewardship will help conserve the sensitive forest areas of North Carolina and Virginia,” said William K. Reilly, former Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and an independent board member of Enviva Partners, LP (NYSE:EVA) who chairs the board’s Health, Safety, Sustainability and Environment Committee. “These steps will help preserve biodiversity in sensitive areas, conserve special forests where Enviva works, and continue to provide economic opportunities for the communities Enviva serves.”
Although the vast majority of Enviva’s wood supply does not come from bottomland forests, the Enviva Forest Conservation Fund is targeting these areas because they offer a wide range of environmental and economic benefits. They also face a number of potential threats, including conversion to other uses.
The Enviva Forest Conservation Fund
Permanently protecting sensitive bottomland forests is the cornerstone of the Enviva Forest Conservation Fund. Enviva will contribute $5 million to the fund in annual installments over 10 years. The Enviva Forest Conservation Fund’s goal is to be a catalyst that will attract other conservation investments to the region, with the goal of conserving 35,000 acres of bottomland forests.
Each year, the Endowment will solicit grant applications, asking qualified organizations to identify specific bottomland tracts that are eligible for protection. Grants will be awarded annually, starting in 2016. The Enviva Forest Conservation Fund will consider a variety of protection strategies, including purchasing land via fee or conservation easement, and grant making priority will be given to organizations that bring matching funds.
“The Enviva Forest Conservation Fund will be particularly appealing to landowners because it provides them a financially attractive alternative to selling their land for development or converting it to other uses,” Owen said. “Many have owned their land for generations and want to keep it in forest cover. The Enviva Forest Conservation Fund will help make this possible.”
The Enviva Bottomland Stewardship Program
To produce wood pellets, Enviva does not use high-grade wood (also called saw logs) that could be milled into furniture or lumber. Enviva uses only low-grade or leftover materials such as crooked or diseased trees, limbs, tops, chips and sawdust, and where markets allow, pulpwood. Enviva does not accept wood that is harvested from old growth forests or other sensitive areas.
To prioritize grant-making opportunities for the Enviva Forest Conservation Fund, the Endowment identified four distinct ecosystems worthy of conservation: cypress-tupelo swamps, Atlantic white cedar stands, pocosins and Carolina bays. In developing its recommendations, the Endowment consulted with a range of other organizations, including state forestry agencies in Virginia and North Carolina, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and land trusts in both states.
These four wetland ecosystems and forest types contain some of the most unique plant and wildlife communities found across the Atlantic coastal plain. They provide a range of important environmental benefits, including improving water quality and maintaining wildlife habitats. Additional forest types or landscape features may be added to this list as a result of the science-based management practices review. Enviva’s proprietary “track and trace” system, which utilizes tract-level, GPS coordinates to trace every wood delivery to the company, will be used to verify that the company’s sustainability policies are observed.
The Endowment Review Team
To continue its work identifying sensitive bottomland forest tracts, and to develop enhanced sustainable management practices for bottomland forestry, the Endowment will appoint and administer a science-based review team composed of environmental and forestry experts. The committee will be funded by the Endowment and Enviva.
This “blue-ribbon committee” will begin work in 2016. The Endowment will seek committee members from state forestry and wildlife agencies, universities and conservation groups to build on Best Management Practices that protect water quality and go further to address a broad range of ecological attributes.