Check it out: How forests can benefit from biochar and biochar production

By Tim Nicosia, USDA Northwest Climate Hub

Close-up of biochar
Close up of biochar created from an in-woods pyrolysis unit. USDA Forest Service photo by Timothy Nicosia.

Forest managers have been slow to include biochar in management plans despite an expanding body of research demonstrating biochar’s efficacy for improved vegetation growth, restored soil health, and improving air quality impacts. Enhanced understanding of costs, benefits, drawbacks and overall economic feasibility among forest managers could change this situation. Indeed, knowledge on the additional cost associated with labor, production, and application of biochar, as well as the basic understanding of how to best use biochar per application are paramount.

Biochar is a carbon-rich soil amendment produced by heating slash at relatively low temperatures (300 to 700C). It has a wide range of applications including  as a soil amendment, pollution mitigator, and climate change mitigation tool. Previous posts have discussed co-composting biochar for crop growth, using Pacific Northwest sourced biochar as a soil amendment in agriculture, and propositions in developing biochar markets, among other topics. But what about the forest? How does it fit into all this?

Seeds being loaded into an implement to bag seeds for transport.
Seeds coated with biochar being added to bags for transport to the field. USDA Forest Service photo by Debbie Page-Dumroese.

The most obvious role the forest plays in biochar is as a source wood for char production. Low to no value slash is often either burnt in piles or left to masticate. Burning piles can damage the soil underneath, while mastication can pose the risk of fuel buildup and increased wildfire risk. Transitioning to creating biochar from this slash can alleviate these risks. Furthermore, biochar can “give back” to the forest via its application on-site, promoting soil health (water holding capacity, soil stability, introducing carbon back to the system, etc), sequestering carbon, and assisting with revegetation efforts.

A trailer steaming, with heavy equipment and forest behind it.
The CharBoss® in Montana getting ready to produce biochar for an in-woods demonstration. USDA Forest Service photo by Timothy Nicosia.

Several methods exist for producing biochar in the woods, including air curtain burners, big box kilns, and rings of fire, allowing managers to produce and apply biochar that same day. If you want the quick and dirty on applying biochar, check out this article. Forests as the source wood for biochar production can also feed into different sectors, assisting with wastewater management, agricultural practices, and energy generation to name a few. So, while the forest can directly benefit from biochar, the forest can also provide the benefits of biochar outside of its boundaries.

To learn more about biochar’s potential and to have access to a variety of resources, visit the Rocky Mountain Research Station webpage that features various communications products (biochar FAQ, biochar and climate change mitigation, biochar and soil health, etc) on biochar and the Pacific Northwest Biochar Atlas website hosted by the Northwest Climate Hub.


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