Biochar project could lead to big benefits for North Central Washington
Last updated 3/31/2021 at 7:56am
Catastrophic wildfires have had a devastating impact on our region. Wildfires can ravage vast sections of our state, displacing families, putting firefighters at risk, and leaving long-term economic recovery challenges. One of the key elements to minimizing our risk of wildfire is to engage in responsible forest management practices and to greatly reduce the small diameter trees, organic waste, and logging slash throughout our timberlands.
Throughout my years in the Washington State Legislature, I have been an active supporter of efforts to reduce our wildfire risks. This work has included successfully passing Senate Bill 5546 in 2017 to establish a long-term statewide framework for state forest health treatments, securing funding for the local Wildfire Project and its critically acclaimed “Era of Megafires” presentations, and sponsoring local fire reduction efforts such as the recent effort at Squilchuck State Park. This year, I am proud to be partnering with Chelan PUD and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on Senate Bill 5158 to help improve ongoing communications between electric utilities, DNR, and legislators.
I am also sponsoring a project with my 12th District House colleagues to support C6 Forest to Farm, a federally recognized 501(c)3 nonprofit in the Methow Valley. Thanks to this organization, we may soon have a creative option in our region for putting logging slash and organic materials – often resulting from forest health practices – to good use. This organization is currently planning a pilot project in the Methow Valley to produce biochar. C6 Forest to Farm will soon initiate a research and demonstration project to produce biochar designed to benefit local agricultural soils and sequester carbon. According to Regeneration International, “Biochar is a charcoal-like substance that’s made by burning organic material from agricultural and forestry wastes (also called biomass) in a controlled process called pyrolysis.”
The types of materials to be processed will be the same biomass that, if left in the forest, would continue to greatly increase our wildfire risk and threaten long-term forest health. Not only would removing these materials reduce our wildfire risk, designed biochar is known to have beneficial soil-enhancing qualities if applied to agricultural lands. In improving soil quality, biochar can be mixed into soil for agricultural purposes or home gardening. It has been proven to enhance soil structure, increase water retention, and decrease acidity, among other benefits. This step keeps carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions from being released into the air through wildfires or slash burning and stabilizes them into the biochar, which can be mixed into the soil for agricultural benefits.
The demonstration project will start with chipping woody material provided from forest health and Firewise treatments and feeding it into a leased research pyrolizer atop a 5-by-12-foot utility trailer. A range of designed biochars, produced by varying the processing conditions, will be used in field trials to optimize the benefits of biochars in locally common soil types, and potentially, for other uses such as wastewater remediation. Following this research phase, a modular pilot plant could be established with an initial capacity to annually process about 25,000 tons of forest waste into 6,000 tons of biochar and supply it to our farmers. The carbon sequestered by doing so would be the equivalent of about 22,000 tons of carbon dioxide. Another benefit is creating good sustainable family-wage jobs. This could be a win-win for our environment and our economy.
This seems like a creative and worthy endeavor, which is why I am partnering with the organization to seek modest funding of $160,000 in the state operating budget to assist in its Methow Valley demonstration project. I’m pleased the Senate operating budget includes this funding and hope it will be retained in the final budget approved by the Legislature. Our state must continue our active forest health efforts if we are ever to get in front of the growing costs of fighting these fires. This includes strategic thinning and responsible prescribed fire. Also, figuring out a good way to repurpose the harvested biomass – without burning it – seems like something that should also be pursued.
Sen. Brad Hawkins serves as our 12th District State Senator representing North Central Washington.