Burning with benefits—for forest ecosystems, fighting wildfire threat, climate change, and more—even inspiring art.
By Pam Wavrin
With the snow melting early this year, it exposed several slash piles scattered throughout our forest acreage on the ranch. Some of the piles have been there longer than the five years that the Roundhouse Foundation has owned Pine Meadow Ranch.
Life gave us a few lemons—so we set out to make lemonade—but not just any ordinary one. We wanted to quench our thirst for fighting climate change, benefitting forest ecosystems and more—even inspiring art, and we’re doing that by burning our slash piles in a biochar kiln.
First, what is biochar? It’s charcoal produced from plant matter and stored in the soil—and it removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. If we were to just burn those slash piles and other fuel for potential wildfires, any opportunity to reduce carbon would literally go up in smoke.
Instead, we’re burning this wood and brush in a biochar kiln—a metal container for heating waste wood and brush which creates biochar. Our kiln is about 80 inches wide and four feet high, with an inner steel ring and an outer ring that holds in the heat.
Here’s why we are making biochar at PMR:
Wildfire fuel reduction
We dubbed last month “Fuel Reduction February.” With the snow already melted and unseasonably warm temperatures, the state Department of Forestry was talking about cutting off burning. Many of the acres of forest that we steward are in need of some tender loving care—taking down dead trees, thinning overcrowded stands and removing limbs from medium-sized trees, as that could create a ladder of fuel to carry fire into the forest canopy. Getting rid of those slash piles reduces fuel for a wildfire while generating biochar, black gold for the forest floor because it helps increase its water holding capacity and adds resilience to the soil.
Biochar can draw carbon from the atmosphere. I like to think of them as little carbon sponges, absorbing carbon and keeping it there virtually forever.
Biochar has an amazing capacity to absorb elements and hold onto them—it has lots of nooks and crannies to be filled up by water and nutrients. When you add biochar to compost, it absorbs nutrients from the compost. Spreading the biochar-infused compost on fields and gardens gives those nutrients and moisture to plants and crops.
Benefits for forest ecosystems
Forests evolved with fire. Spreading biochar around the forest floor provides the forest with some of the benefits that it would receive from a forest fire without burning the land. Over time, the char gets worked into the ground by creatures moving through the forest.
There are several other uses of biochar that we are experimenting with here. Biochar has been found to reduce compaction. In one of our heavily compacted pastures we will be doing several trials to see how we can reduce compaction without tillage. Biochar will be added to some of the plantings, as well as to a test area where we will spread some biochar.
We will be adding biochar around some of our drought-stressed cottonwoods, aspens and ponderosa pines to see if it gives them a “limb” up over their neighbors.
We are spreading biochar in part of our cheatgrass test area. Uncharged biochar (non-composted) absorbs nitrogen, which makes it less available in the soil. Cheatgrass and many invasive weeds love nitrogen, so reducing the amount of nitrogen in the soil gives native plants a chance to get established and crowd out the invaders.
In our composting system we are not adding biochar to one of the piles. We will test them when they are done “cooking,” or decomposing, to see how the biochar has affected them.
Possible retail potential
If we ever find ourselves with an excess of the stuff, there is a market for it from gardeners and farmers.
Science + Nature + Art
And last but not least, we are an artist residency. I am looking forward to seeing the first work that is created using a PMR biochar stick!