Forest Service combats tree deaths with recycled wood

Curtis Kvamme, a soil scientist at the Stanislaus National Forest, pours biochar next to a tree near Arnold. The United States Forest Service is scattering the substance over a 16-acre lot where about 5,000 bark beetle-infested trees were felled in 2016.

Curtis Kvamme took an orange bucket that held just under 5 gallons of dark, black sediment, walked approximately 20 yards and dumped the sediment at the base of a pine tree that has lost many of its needles.

“Eighty-eight,” said the Sonora-based soil scientist at the Stanislaus National Forest of the bucket count.

One-hundred fifty tons to go.

Scientists began a study Monday in a part of the forest near Arnold, where evidence of historically arid conditions earlier in the decade can be seen in trees that have been devastated by bark beetles nearby. The goal is to try to save and rejuvenate the forest.

Workers pour what amounts to recycled trees – turned into biochar after being roasted without oxygen – onto the soil with hopes it will hold more ground moisture to feed the struggling canopy. It would pay off in the summer months when conditions turn dry.

If the ground holds more water, effectively watered trees would be able to better fight off attacks from bugs that thrive when their victims cannot produce enough sap to deter invasions, said Debbie Page-Dumroese, a research soil scientist for the Rocky Mountain Research Station of the United States Forest Service. In turn, the efforts could also reduce fire risk.

It is not known how the environment will react to the study, a long-term evaluation of biochar use. Similar queries throughout western states like Montana, Utah, Oregon and Idaho have seen an improvement in ground vegetation and seedling growth.

The soil in the Stanislaus forest is different from other locations that have been studied thus far, said Page-Dumroese. The dirt is fine, clay-like and rocky. Other soils have been sandy and rocky, she said.

If results reflect a positive effect on the area, biochar could provide an alternative to the carbon dioxide pollution from smoky burn piles. Page-Dumroese said chopped stacks of trees could be turned into biochar, which is made when wood is burned without oxygen at 752 degrees Fahrenheit.

“When you burn wood in a burn pile, you lose 90 percent of the biocarbon,” said Kvamme. “When you use the biochar, you save 80 percent of it.”

The Forest Service has a patent out for a portable container to manufacture biochar onsite, said Page-Dumroese. A Florida-based company is currently working on the prototype. She said it is expected to be done by next year.

Ultimately, the businesses could prosper from the prototype, she said. They are focusing on salvaging dead or dying timber industries in rural areas. For the next 20 years, scientists will observe the biochar in the Stanislaus National Forest in a 16-acre plot where approximately 5,000 beetle-killed trees were removed in the fall of 2016, said Marcus Taylor, a wood and biomass utilization scientist with the USFS.

The biochar on site as of Monday was hauled into the area aboard trucks after it was made out of recycled almond trees from Merced, said Page-Dumroese. Truckers brought biochar in and hauled out stacks of felled trees to use as fuel to make more.

The project cost about $150,000. Page-Dumroese said the Forest Service is paying for the study.

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