Photo by Wasim Muklashy/TNC Photo Contest 2019

Sequestering Carbon Through Conversation and Community Burning: Converting Forest Fuels to Biochar 

We all enjoy telling stories around a campfire, but what if that campfire was also a tool to improve timber practices and reduce carbon emissions? The Lands Council partnered with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians and others on a pilot project to reduce forest fuels and transform them to beneficial biochar. These pilot burns were a chance for the forest community to come together and look at the many potentials for biochar on the landscape along with some of the limitations to large scale implementation.

Biochar is created in a process called pyrolysis, a high heat low oxygen environment. Many different materials, or feedstocks, from wood to straw can be used and the end product is light weight, extremely porous, and has high carbon content. Compared to the original feedstock, the carbon in biochar will last for hundreds to thousands of years in the soil. This sequestering of carbon back into the soil can offset some of the traditional practices in timber management including the use of machinery and emissions released from burning timber waste.

Forest thinning is a key component of forest management, particularly for wildland fire fuels reduction. Due to over a hundred years of fire suppression and aggressive logging practices, our western forests are choked with many small, non-commercially viable trees that increase the risk of catastrophic fire. Thinning these trees helps reduce the risk of devastating fires, ensuring that the carbon stored in the remaining trees remains there, rather than being released as smoke into the atmosphere. The focus of many of these thinning projects is in the WUI or Wildland Urban Interface. These are areas near houses and population centers where an uncontrolled fire can have costly and sometimes deadly consequences. 

The common practice for fuels reduction thinning is to have hand crew cut small diameter trees to reduce the ladder fuels that can allow a fire to move from the forest floor to the tree canopy. These small trees and branches, also known as slash, are then stacked in piles where they are allowed to dry before they are burned in the cooler/wetter months of late fall. There are a few issues with this method of removing fuels from the forest. Burning many slash piles at once produces a lot of smoke that can impact local air quality. The burning of these piles also scorches the surrounding soils, essentially sterilizing them. The end product of burning these piles is ash which can change the chemical properties of the soil and has limited beneficial effects.

In contrast, the conversion of slash to biochar has many benefits to the forest landscape and the climate. Amending agricultural soils with biochar created from available agricultural and forest waste could sequester up to 95 million metric tons of cardon dioxide if adopted nationwide. One of the crucial characteristics of biochar is the porosity, or the numerous minute holes which allows biochar to have incredible water holding capacity. In forests, biochar can help decommission logging decks and roads, reducing soil compaction and erosion – greatly improving stream health. It can also be added to the forest floor to increase the survival and growth of saplings. Those porous holes in biochar also create habitat for beneficial soil fugus and insects. The benefits of biochar are increasingly sought after in agricultural practices from the dry land grain production of eastern Washington to the vineyards and orchards of central Washington. Producers see the benefit to their crops with increased yields and improved water holding capacity, which reduces their water needs.

Ray Entz, Director of Wildlife and Terrestrial Resources for the Kalispel Tribe, saw the value in trying out biochar burning with some recent thinning projects. “The Kalispel Tribe sees climate impacts and its effects on forestry and forest management as absolutely critical,” said Entz. “We have been witnessing climate impacts to our forests over the past 10 years or so and we are interested in making sure we are doing the absolute best we can with our management. One of the controversial areas around forestry is post-harvest biomass [referred to as slash] treatment. It has been a longstanding practice to either lop and scatter or pile and burn excess biomass post-harvest. Knowing there may be better ways to treat biomass, we offered up piles on one of our recent harvest treatments as a pilot to demonstrate the use of biochar kilns and panels to reduce biomass to a more useful product while limiting smoke and soil impacts. We worked with The Lands Council, Resource Synergy, and the WSU extension office to create the space to see and learn about biochar production. Now, we have a way to go to bring biochar to the forefront as a viable and economical practice, but this is a great start, and we are supportive of its use in the future over a greater landscape.”

Over several crisp fall mornings, The Lands Council staff used two different techniques to convert slash piles into biochar on lands belonging to the Kalispel Tribe of Indians in Northeast Washington. The Wilson, or Oregon Kilns, are portable kilns that can be moved around the forest and operated by a team of 3-4 four. These are crossed stacked with feedstock to pack in as much wood as possible, and then each kiln is top lit. All of these steps help to reduce the amount of oxygen entering the pyrolysis process. The Polygon, or Ring of Fire kilns, are interlocking panels that can be constructed around existing slash piles and can be made to fit just about any size.

Gathered around the biochar kilns were many members of the community. Connections were made between the local public utility, which manages a biomass plant in the region, and a burgeoning biochar company that seeks to monetize the production of biochar and get it out of the forest and onto agricultural lands. We had seasoned foresters helping kids buck wood and feed it into the kilns. We had discussion with the local conservation district about creating training and a lending library for the biochar equipment so private landowners could have the valuable product of biochar while making their forest less prone to wildfires.

We also talked about some of the limitations of biochar production. These were small scale biochar productions relative to standard thinning practices that large land managers would conduct. There was also additional time and labor to cut feedstock to size and feed the kilns. We had many discussions on how to incorporate machinery to scale up and make the process more efficient. We also discussed the different market avenues for biochar, from carbon credits to landowners to selling to local hay producers. During these discussions, we established a goal of creating a circular economy through the reduction of forest fuels, using biochar as the currency. This will ultimately lead to safer forests, increased carbon sequestration, and numerous environmental benefits for the forest ecosystem.

There is still more research to be done to fully understand the climate change mitigation benefits of biochar, best practices for producing biochar and applying it to the land, and mechanisms for incentivizing the production and use of biochar. Numerous resources are available to fund this kind of research, including federal, state, and private sector support. For example, The Lands Council and Kalispel Tribe’s biochar program was supported by a grant from the Washington Department of Commerce. Federal programs like the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) Program can also help fund research and pilot projects. For example, a recent CIG project in Oregon supported research into different methods for producing biochar. As a result of this research, some participants in the NRCS’s Conservation Stewardship Program are allowed to convert agricultural waste into biochar.