‘Biochar’ could ease beetle-kill pain | SummitDaily.com

‘Biochar’ could ease beetle-kill pain

BOB BERWYN
summit daily news
Summit County, Colorado

FRISCO ” As the U.S. Forest Service looks for ways to use vast amounts of beetle-killed wood, an ages-old process called biochar is emerging as an option.

Pre-Columbian natives in North and South America already knew that adding charcoal to certain soils would help with fertility and water retention. Now, scientists say it can also help prevent the build-up of greenhouse gases.

“I got tuned into a different way of looking at our treatments for biomass,” said Bernie Weingardt, explaining how scientists working at Forest Service research stations started exploring the idea of trying to prevent the decaying wood from adding heat-trapping greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Weingardt is a retired Forest Service ranger who headed the Dillon Ranger District between 1986 and 1989. He later became the Pacific Southwest regional forester. He spoke Thursday morning at a forest health task force meeting in Frisco.

“We’ve been logging and burning all along and never looked at the carbon emissions issue,” Weingardt said. “So we started some pilot projects to track the carbon footprint.”

Scientists with the agency’s research stations used data from biomass and co-generation facilities in the region to get an idea of how much carbon can be captured or used through alternate processes.

Recommended Stories For You

The biochar process (see sidebar) is yet another tool that could be used in conjunction with other treatments, he said.

Along similar lines, Summit County has started an ambitious composting program, combining wood chips from beetle-killed trees with other organic materials to manufacture a marketable product that can used in landscaping and re-vegetation projects.

One byproduct of the biochar process is a synthetic gas that can be used as fuel. Weingardt suggested that the gas could help run a pellet plant, or some other industrial facility that processes beetle-killed wood as part of a big-picture solution.

At the end of the process, the charcoal can be used to amend soil. In California, vintners have been using it successfully to boost vineyard productivity, Weingardt said. It could also be used on a broader scale in reforestation projects.

“It’s kind of out there ” you have to be looking long-term in terms of productivity,” Weingardt said.

Task force members also said there has been some progress in using beetle-killed wood in local projects.

At least one condo complex at Copper Mountain will replace old siding with blue-stain wood, so-called for the dark tinge in the wood that’s caused by a fungus carried by the pine beetles. And there’s a chance the new chapel at Copper will incorporate beetle-killed wood both inside and out.

At another project in Dillon Valley, a bid for re-siding with blue-stain wood came in $2,000 less than a bid using traditional western red cedar.

Bob Berwyn can be reached

at (970) 331-5996, or at bberwyn@summitdaily.com.