Forests and Fires

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Some forests will burn if lit by either lightning or man’s actions.  In American there is lots of forest that is ready to burn.  The nearly mythical climate change is a very small part of the reason.  Man’s intervention into the natural occurrence of lightning induced forest fires has resulted in many decades of accumulation of dead wood and debris in the forests. The killing of many trees by disease and insects has left even more dead wood in the forests.  In some places a majority of trees are dead. These areas are ripe for a fire.  Forest fires are bad in many ways, but especially bad for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.A large fire raises carbon dioxide levels in two ways. First there is the massive amount of carbon released by the burning. Andthere is also the effect of years of sharply reduced carbon sequestration due to the disappearance of significant numbers of trees.  

Man has a history of treating forested land with disrespect. Little forest land is well managed.  Forest land is divided between largely managed timber on privately owned land and largely unmanaged timber on national forests in the western United States. Humans have not set foot on much of this government owned forest. Nature is not a kind manager: forests becomechoked with too many trees that stunt each other’s growth and soil becomes badly demineralized, resulting in sickly trees which succumb to disease and parasites. It is said that more forest burned before western man settled California than burns today by a large margin. What we do know is that most trees don’t live to be very old besides the fire resistant redwoods which are very old. There is a sad trend towards less vital younger trees, especially in areas where there has been heavylogging.  

I owned a property with lots of woods on it and was surprisedthat in areas that had been logged many years ago there was regrowth of lots of trees, but the regrown trees were shorter and less healthy than the very few remaining older trees that had been uncut when the forest was first cut by white settlers. The old growth trees were massive and tall. Many of the regrowth trees on my property were starting to rot from the inside even though they were not old. We cut some for timber and were surprised that they weren’t good for lumber due to a hollow forming in the center of the tree. The trees were literally eating themselves because of their being unable to resist decomposing organisms. I believe a lack of adequate minerals is to blame forsickly trees that are unable to resist disease and parasites. My forest was on depleted ground and over many years the trees barely grew in height and girth. We don’t know what the original timber looked like, but the few old trees that were left as shade for an original settler’s homestead were scattered throughthe woods were taller and more robust. My family owned a large cotton mill that was built 140 years ago from first growth timber of a size that is unavailable now.  Massive timbers 40 to 60 feet long and one by two feet in cross section came from massive,tall trees that don’t exist anymore in large numbers. The soil has become demineralized and trees are shorter and less healthy. Every tree cut and removed from the woods takes soil nutrients with it and rainfall leaches water soluble nutrients as well.  

Trees don’t use a lot of soil nutrients, and burning wood efficiently leaves a tiny amount of ash, but there are rock minerals in trees and wood ashes. If natural leaching and erosion removes minerals from the soil and  volcanic eruptions and glaciation adds minerals, then there is an ebb and flow of mineral levels in the soil, and thus trees, that goes on for countless years. In a natural forest, trees live until they die from a variety of causes with the dead tree rotting into forest mulch or being burned to return its ash largely back into the soil with some of the nutrients being leached into the water to return to the sea or wetland.  

Man has altered the natural cycle by cutting and removing lots of trees for use which removes their nutrients from the forest land. Additionally, putting out forest fires where the fuel load of dead vegetation grows each year alters the cycle. In many areas the timber is regrowth from earlier cutting or fires and is too tightly spaced. Tight spacing results in trees that are weakened and have dead branches that are vulnerable to fire.

Man has primarily utilized clear cutting, the cheapest and easiest method to harvest trees. There is a lot of federal forest that has been set aside and not cut or managed, sometimes very near human dwellings.  People love the beauty of the woods and a lot of homes have been built in timbered areas. Due to demineralized and depleted soil, the trees aren’t vital and in many areas. There are lots of dead trees both standing and fallen that have built up in all the years that fires have been quickly suppressed. Additionally, clearing areas of the woods for houses lets in more light to the adjacent remaining forest land which encourages undergrowth to develop which is more vulnerable to fire.  

Logging is usually a very destructive process that is opposed by most environmental groups for many good reasons. Today, older growth hardwood forests are cut down and replanted with fast growing pine trees to create a tree plantation where the trees will be cut after just ten years to thin the stand depending on how the trees grow. Soil quality makes a huge difference in how tall and vigorous a stand of timber is. I had some very poor soil on my property where we planted some pine trees. The trees didn’t grow tall, reaching only about 30 feet, which meant branches low to the ground which made them no good for lumber. We just cut them for pulp wood for paper use. Pine trees on better ground might get to be 80 feet tall. Interestingly, pine trees don’t grow on really fertile land but require just the right ground.  

A healthy tree that is not stressed by lack of moisture in the soil is almost impossible to burn. In fact, a lightning strike will leave a scar on the living tree and not start a fire. But in some areas,the trees grow in a climate where long dry spells leave a tree dried to a point where it is likely to catch on fire when struck by lightning. We are seeing lots of lightning-lit fires in the year 2020. These strikes are lighting woods that are filled with fuel.The resulting fires burn very hot and cause lots of destruction.  

Currently there is little use for all the dead trees and debris in the forest and little effort made to manage the forests for healthy growth and fire resistance. What is needed is underbrush and dead wood removal along with a thinning of trees growing too close together for optimal growth. Remineralizing the soil is also needed to increase growth and health of the remaining trees. In some of the forests that are mostly dead there is actually a need to remove the dead and sick trees. These areas should bereplanted with resistant tree seedlings that are fertilized with rock dust and compost as well as biochar for increased growth and health.  

But how to do it and how to pay for it.

Currently there is little value placed on carbon sequestered from the air and no value placed on preventing the carbon trapped in timber from being returned to the air by decomposition or burning. There is a great potential use for the biomass. It can be reclaimed, the usable wood for use and the remainder for producing biochar. Traditional methods of cutting and gathering woodland biomass don’t work in the many areas that are far from a road or on difficult terrain. Much timberland is so overgrown with understory and littered with dead timber that it is nearly impossible to even walk through. Very little money is allocated to timber land management which means that neglect is the standard. The GET Real Alliance proposes a radically different way to improve timberland and sharply reduce the damage done by forest fires. We propose a program of using dead and excess timber to produce primarily biochar with the sale of usable wood. The vast majority of biomass that needs to be removed from forests to wipe out the risk and magnitude of forest fire is usable only as biochar feedstock.  

Biochar is biomass that has been burned at a temperature below carbon’s ignition level, usually in an oxygen limiting way. Biochar can be the end result of a wood energy power system that partially combusts the wood to produce combustible gases that can be used as fuel for a power generating system. Thus both biochar and renewable power can be produced. Biochar is basically pure carbon in  a porous form that is a magnet for nutrients, water, and soil life. The legendary Terra Preta in latinAmerica was created by ancient man and is still very fertile a thousand years later. A mixture of biochar, basalt rock dust, and compost can sharply boost sustainable timber and agriculture production meaning sequestration of carbon from the air!!  

The only feasible way to remove material from dense woods on impossible to access on ground land is from the air and the FOI Group LLC has conceived a new way to do this that is environmentally friendly and very doable with a well fundedcarbon sequestration program. Biochar is a part of the solution to rising carbon dioxide levels and soil health for both crops and forests. We need to be making hundreds of millions of tons of itand applying it to all land.  Making biochar out of dead or dying trees removes much of the carbon in the wood permanently from the carbon cycle and enhances both soil life and plants on the treated soil, leading to greater removal of carbon from the air.  Only a small fraction of the produced biochar from an acre of timber is needed on that land so most can be taken elsewhere for use.

The proposed solution is novel, lighter-than-air ships that can be tethered over an area of forest and moved as the desired material has been lifted up. There is so much fuel that needs to be removed that an airship may only move a hundred feet or so a day as the land below it is cleaned up and made fire proof and restored to growth. These airships can be equipped with timber processing equipment to salvage usable timber for use as well as chip and burn some of the wood for power and biochar. Shuttle airships would transport the bulk of timber and wood chips to a shipping point where they could be loaded on a truck for transport. It is believed that while airships offer the unique advantage of being able to access road-less areas, they are more expensive than truck transport when roads are available.  They are a double gain as far as carbon sequestration with the long term near permanent removal by biochar and the increased growth of properly managed and fertilized forest. There is also the avoided large emission when a forest burns and kills the trees.  

All of this costs a good bit of money, but can be funded by a tax on carbon emissions and is a net positive. Currently, huge amounts of property damage and even loss of life is caused by wildfires.  Timber sales and renewable energy revenue will help with the cost. We need to rethink what timber is worth when we price in the incredible damage inflicted by clear cutting.Additionally, we need to find a sustainable way of accessing timber that doesn’t make the world a worse place. Selective aerial harvesting will be more expensive than scorched earth clear cutting. But this method of harvesting will leave us with a better forest that can grow without stopping to sequester more carbon and have good timber for the future.

Spending carbon sequestration dollars on revitalizing forests and making countless tons of biochar will cost more money per ton of biochar than the tax on carbon emissions but has additional sequestration over time that makes it cost effective. Making the forests around human settlements fire proof will have huge benefits as well. Remineralized forests grow much faster than ones on depleted soils and adding biochar to the soil increases its water holding capacity greatly, making the trees more drought resistant as well. Healthy forests will help make the world carbon negative while we still use oil and gas and give us more timber in the future. Please help us spread the positive word by signing up for the newsletter and giving to www.getrealalliance.org.