Forest management and failure to thin

Man thinning underbrush in forest

The Rim Fire in California is just a couple thousand acres away from becoming the
third largest fire in that state’s history. Let’s look at the statistics so far:

  • Started August 17
  • 237,341 acres (371 sq. miles) burned so far
  • Bay Area water supply threatened at one point
  • $77 million cost to date

Here’s something of note—nearly half of the Rim Fire burned in the first two
days
. Fire experts attribute decades of fire suppression and other human-caused
changes to spreading the fire. Once the blaze reached Yosemite National Park, where
the National Park Service has performed fire control projects to reduce stocked fuels
in recent years, and lets naturally sparked fires burn, the fire slowed down its
advance.

My question is… how can we NOT afford forest management? Why not reduce stocked
fuels through thinning and then torrefy that biomass to produce energy dense biofuel?

“My view is that unless we get ahead of the fuels/restoration problem in forests that
once experienced frequent fire, wildfires influenced by climate change will burn them
at severtities and spatial scales that will not conserve forests into the future,”
says Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at the Unversity of California,
Berkeley.

The increasing severity of wildfires should concern all of us who look at forests as a
way to capture carbon dioxide. How California’s Rim Fire Grew So Big is a very
informative piece at livescience.com. You’ll also find a time-lapse video
of the fire
on the same site.

Juniper biomass – a great source of energy!

Juniper forest in Central Oregon

Large shrubby juniper trees are almost a western icon and rather picturesque – until you realize they are considered by many to be an intrusive species that is depleting the water tables in our grasslands and rangelands. Many plant and animal species are in decline where juniper prevails: indigenous grasses that provide food for wildlife and stock, as well as habitat for steelhead trout and the threatened Sage Grouse. Juniper has proliferated throughout central and eastern Oregon in the last 150 years, increasing as much as ten-fold, according to Oregon State University researchers. The situation is so bad that a “Western Juniper Utilization Group,” an Oregon Solutions project, has been designated by Gov. John Kitzhaber.
Sustainable Northwest, a nonprofit organization that works with communities to innovate and solve critical natural resource challenges, is promoting use of restoration juniper for landscaping, decking and other building materials. As a result, water tables are slowly being restored.
But there is lots more work to be done. Almost twenty years ago The Oregon State University Extension did an exhaustive study on the harmful effects of juniper on rangeland. They found that “on warm days, in mid-summer, a tree 18 inches in diameter at its base can transpire 30 – 40 gallons [of water] per day…” The report reviews techniques for eradicating juniper, concluding western juniper is highly sensitive to fire and difficult to burn. Burning slash piles would contaminate the air and possibly spread fire elsewhere. The already weaken soil could be sterilized due to the high heat.
I can’t help but imagine using juniper biomass – from after harvest by the Western Juniper Utilization Group or other efforts – as a feedstock for torrefaction, a technology that was not available at the time this report was written. HM3 Energy has torrefied and densified (using commercial equipment) sturdy, water resistant juniper briquettes at our pilot facility. I can envision commercial torrefaction plants in rural Oregon producing long-term family-wage jobs in the future.

HM3 Energy