One Stick at a Time: What beavers and biochar have in common

One Stick at a Time: What beavers and biochar have in common

Conservation Northwest / Mar 16, 2021 / Climate Change, Forest Field Program, Forestry

When natural processes are disrupted by anthropogenic changes, innovative solutions can help restore healthy, functioning ecosystems.

By Michael Liu, Okanogan Forest Lead

Long before I was engaged in beaver recovery efforts in the Methow Valley, I enjoyed chance opportunities to watch the furry critters at work in their natural environment. Their carpentry seemed fun and magical, as they added one stick at a time to their leaky dams. Over time, I came to appreciate their engineering prowess and the ecosystem functions their dams performed, such as storing water, filtering sediment, enhancing riparian vegetation, and providing habitat complexity for fish and other aquatic organisms.

Beavers provide a variety of ecological benefits, and are making a recovery in Washington state. Photo: WDFW

By the late 1800s, trapping by fur traders had decimated the beaver populations of North America. As European and East Coast fashions changed, and the fur industry collapsed, beavers began to recolonize their previous habitats. However, in their absence, beaver dams in headwater streams had begun to fail and riparian vegetation such as aspen and willow had diminished. This (along with cattle grazing) meant less food availability for beavers, resulting in some areas no longer being attractive habitats to them.

In order to recover beaver populations in these changed landscapes, artificial beaver dam analogs (BDAs) are necessary at times to spread out water, raise steam beds and allow aspen, willow and other riparian hardwoods to establish first, so beavers can persist.

In a similar way, the essential role of fire has been altered in the recent history of Eastern Washington’s dry forests. In order to restore these landscapes, we must “artificially” mimic natural processes in some areas so the role of characteristic wildfire can resume. Treatments can include tree thinning and or prescribed burning, and managing wildfires under the right conditions.

See my past blog on this topic, “Wildfires in the West: climate change, mismanagement, or both?

A Forest Service employee works on a thinning treatment on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Photo: Michael Liu

But these treatments are expensive and tree thinning can generate a lot of biomass, making prescribed burning more difficult, as well as generating smoke and unhealthy air quality. Removing small trees is often cost-prohibitive due to low commercial value and limited markets. As a result, the pace and scale of landscape restoration is slowed.

Through my role on Consevation Northwest’s Forest Field Program team, I am always looking for innovative ways to increase the pace and scale of habitat restoration across broad landscapes, one stick at a time. Like the beaver, I know that one stick may not seem like much, but collectively, they can make a big difference. That’s where biochar comes in.

Biochar is produced by pyrolysis (decomposition by heating materials without oxygen) of biomass (organic material, such as small trees from thinning treatments). When added to soil, it improves soil health and helps plants grow, which can be great for agriculture.

Biochar also sequesters carbon. Instead of having excess biomass in dry Eastern Washington forests that add fuel to uncharacteristic wildfires, releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the forest burns, this biomass can be removed and turned into biochar, where it will have the opposite effect by actively removing carbon from the atmosphere. This is a win-win for climate change, forest health, wildfire risk, and the local economy.

Biochar improves soil health and sequesters atmospheric carbon. Photo: C6 Forest to Farm

Here on the eastside of the Cascades, I have been supporting C6 Forest to Farm in their endeavor to bring a biochar demonstration and research project to the Methow Valley. Recently, Washington’s 12th District state legislators have sponsored this biochar project by requesting $160,000 in the 2021-2023 state operating budget.

If successful, the project could lead to establishing local infrastructure to cleanly and efficiently process forest waste materials into biochar, providing opportunities to reduce smoke impacts, sequester carbon, improve soil, add jobs to the local economy, and increase the pace and scale of forest restoration.

As climate change increasingly threatens the health of our wildlands and wildlife, innovative, nature-based approaches to reducing atmospheric CO2 is essential. We’ll continue working toward climate change solutions that also benefit local communities and keep the northwest wild!

Learn more about our work for climate change on our WEBPAGE, or check out our FOREST FIELD PROGRAM.
Biomass covers the forest floor after a thinning treatment on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Photo: Michael Liu