Biochar: potential forest health tool

    Biochar: potential forest health tool
    A House Joint Resolution with strong bipartisan backing seeks to acknowledge the potential of biochar for uses including waste management and forest health restoration. Photo: Washington State University

    As state officials and stakeholders look for ways to improve forest health around Washington that are in need of restoration, one possible new tool may be found in biochar – a fine-grain charcoal that can be used to treat wastewater and soil. Its potential for that and other uses has inspired a strong bipartisan effort calling for further research.

    House Joint Resolution 4000 (HJR 4000) would affirm “the Legislature’s support for the research of biochar as an animal feed, remediation tool, landscaping material, and soil amendment for forest and agricultural lands.” The resolution is sponsored by Rep. Matt Shea (R-4) and cosponsored by 18 Republicans and Democrats. Its companion bill in the Senate is SJM 8005 sponsored by Rep. Shelley Short (R-7) with similar bipartisan cosponsors.

    HJR 4000 acknowledges research conducted by Washington State University, the state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Forest Service on the uses of biochar.

    One of the problems with biochar is that despite that research, common knowledge about it remains limited, says Greg Rock with Carbon Washington. At a Jan. 16. public hearing of the House Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture, & Natural Resources, he told lawmakers that “from a cynical perspective someone might say this memorial doesn’t do anything, and maybe it’s easy to get a bipartisan group to do nothing. But I disagree. I think that this is an important memorial, primarily an educational vehicle.”

    He added that despite working as a sustainability engineer, he hadn’t heard about biochar until a few years ago. “Education is really important. It’s hard to expect legislators to have much knowledge of this topic. Biochar is not a panacea. It’s not going to solve all of our problems, but it’s a very interesting topic, and it’s worth studying more.”

    According to a 2018 WSU study done in conjunction with Ecology, biochar created through waste materials can potentially help reduce landfill space demand as well as greenhouse gas emissions through carbon sequestration, a strategy advocated by Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz in a January 2018 letter to state lawmakers.

    A 2017 post by USFS noted that biochar can aid other forest health treatments such as mechanical thinning by restoring nutrients into soil and can help mimic the same positive forest management effects of natural wildfire. Also, USFS found that in greenhouse production biochar has the potential to offer the same nutrients and growth properties as vermiculite, a compound used to retain water in soil.

    Reflecting on the research done, Rock said: “We’ve really positioned ourselves well to be a leader in this industry, which we are.”

    No further action is scheduled for HJR 4000.

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