Poplar trees are good candidates for supplying biomass for renewable energy in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) because they are fast-growing, adaptable to a variety of site conditions, amenable to conversion, and harvestable as a short rotation (2 to 3 year) woody crop. Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest (AHB) is a USDA NIFA-funded project investigating the potential for a sustainable poplar biofuels and bio-based chemicals industry in the PNW. AHB researchers have studied the environmental effects of poplar bioenergy farms at four PNW demonstration sites in comparison to proximal forest and/or agricultural plantings. Methods include soil and water quality monitoring, surveying small mammal and songbird biodiversity across harvest cycles, and developing genetic containment strategies. In addition to providing ecosystem services when grown for renewable energy, poplars are useful for other environmental applications. Washington State University Extension – an AHB partner – is collaborating with wastewater treatment professionals who grow poplar trees as part of their operations.
In this presentation, we discuss the environmental impacts of short rotation poplar farms as they compare to reference sites, and Extension’s role in enabling the exploration of poplar plantings as a combined strategy for addressing climate change, water and soil quality issues, and other challenges in the PNW. After six years, poplars continue to show promise as a feedstock for a biofuels and bio-based chemicals industry, but challenges to implementation remain. In comparison to adjacent agricultural fields, the poplar farms show evidence of providing ecosystem services through decreased nutrient leaching at nutrient-rich sites and increased wildlife abundance and richness. Combining renewable energy with other ecosystem services may help overcome economic barriers to a poplar-based bioeconomy and provide win-win ecosystem services scenarios to PNW communities. Extension is identifying environmental applications of poplars, facilitating stakeholder meetings, hosting field tours, and producing outreach material to raise awareness and aid in the develop of a roadmap to merging poplars’ ecosystem services.