Uses For Small Woody Material: I. Biochar on the Mount Hood

An excavator drops load of slash into the top of the TigerCat 6050 Carborator. George Plaven, Capital Press

If you agree with the claim that in some places trees and other vegetative material need to be removed for fuels reduction or removal of hazard trees, then the question becomes what to do with it? What are the alternatives to burning piles? It would be using the material in some way.

Larger material can go to a mill, if there is a mill. Many parts of the west have minimal or no mill capacity within a cost-effective distance.

Folks have been exploring alternative ways of dealing with the material, as we have outlined in other posts. Selling logs to Korea, bioenergy plants, and others. I’ve told the story before that when Boulder Colorado young innovators were thinking of ways to make products from dead lodgepole, representatives from environmental groups told them they would resist these efforts because they felt if a market developed, the Forest Service would overcut. It seems to me that there are alternative ways to deal with mistrust.. such as an agreed upon certification system that this is indeed “waste” that would otherwise be burned. We do have a history of forest certification with third party audits and chains of custody which could provide some assurance. On the other hand, certification carries no small amount of cost, and right now alternatives to burning do not always break even, let alone make a profit.

There is also the private versus federal land issue- even if markets were developed just for material from private land, that would still help out many people and governments paying for hazardous fuel mitigation. So perhaps there is no opposition from environmental groups (and perhaps support?) for development of technologies and markets for private land. Conceivably, if we have a log export ban we could also have a small material use ban. Perhaps such a ban would seem like a waste of government resources, but the Sierra Club has maintained a policy of no commercial timber sales on National Forests for many years and continues to do so.

Many people have been talking about and spent many research and technology development dollars, in the pursuit of this Small Diameter Grail for many first experience was in the early 80’s, when there was talk of building a waferboard plant for dead lodgepole in Chiloquin, Oregon. And I’m sure the need existed before then. We were perhaps less aware of the negative carbon effects of burning. Climate change adaptation (need for fuel treatments) and mitigation are new concerns.

What I’ve noticed in some of the dialogue around this at the international and national level is that “biomass” is a broad category that includes energy crops, plant and animal wastes, and many other things. So it’s hard to say anything definitive because people are talking about different things at different scales, and usually not specific to a place. For this series, I’d like to focus on wood waste that is a byproduct of other activities, the most common being timber harvest and fuel treatment thinnings.

We can think about these ideas as we explore further. Today’s story is from the Capital Press, via the Forest Business Network.

ESTACADA, Ore. — An excavator rumbled over a pile of dead tree branches, limbs and woody debris in the Mt. Hood National Forest east of Estacada, Ore., where the Riverside Fire began Sept. 8 and quickly enveloped 138,054 acres.

Next to the pile sat the Tigercat 6050 carbonator, a tank-like mobile machine designed to convert organic biomass such as forest brush and slash into biochar, a carbon-rich soil amendment with serious potential for Northwest farms.

“Black gold,” remarked Kraig Kidwell, regional timber contracting officer for the U.S. Forest Service, as he grabbed a handful of grainy, jet-black biochar. “We’re taking a waste product and creating something usable.”

Kidwell watched alongside Phil Monsanto, West Zone silviculturist for the national forest, as the excavator dropped several loads of slash into the open top of the carbonator, flames barely visible as they peeked out of the vessel.

To the best of anyone’s knowledge, it is the first time federal land managers have incorporated making biochar as part of a wildfire cleanup project.

“We have so much of this slash, we just wanted to find other ways to manage it,” Monsanto said.

2 thoughts on “Uses For Small Woody Material: I. Biochar on the Mount Hood”

  1. Another use for dead, dying trees and “sub-merchantable” trees thinned from over dense timber stands. Other sources:

    Bettering endangered species habitat (RCWs)
    Controlling invasive species (salt cedar)
    Ecosystem restoration (longleaf pine sites occupied by scrub oak stands)

    Needed for for an effective utilization program is mill capacity, financing, and aggressive federal support.

  2. Hi just discovered this site…I also recently discovered the finish company Spinnova, that has found a way to make fiber from wood pulp without solvants…there is so much biomass in the forest that I would have to think if we can get these factories built it would be way cheaper than cotton and the carbon saved from fire prevention should qualify it for big subsidies…


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