I’d like to introduce you to a slash pile.
This one is about 5 feet high and perhaps ten feet in diameter across the base, and sits on a forest floor in Utah.
It’s entirely made of dead wood.
Over the past summer hundreds of “hand crews” armed with chainsaws have moved through western forests cutting and gathering dead-on-the-ground and dead-standing trees into slash piles just like this.
At this moment there are probably a million or more slash piles just like this across the United States.
Over the course of the coming 6 months they will be completely burned. Assuming a pile weighs about 5 tons, that’s about 9 tons of CO2 created and released per pile. For context, that’s more than the carbon footprint of most people each year.
What are the implications of burning slash piles?
Burning slash piles reduces the risk of uncontrolled wildfire by reducing the amount of “fuel” available to feed it. Slash pile burning usually occurs under controlled circumstances, specifically:
- Temperatures are lower,
- There is snow on the ground, and
- Professional foresters are on hand to control it.
But the cost of burning slash piles is high, both in traditional terms (dollars paid to foresters to manage the burning process), but more importantly in environmental terms. The wood is not commercially valuable enough to take away from the forest, and the only apparent way to get rid of it is a controlled burn.
What else can be done with a slash pile?
In some countries dead trees are burned to generate electricity.
This is a little better, but still releases CO2.
Some newfangled processes that promise to produce valuable producing jet fuel are emerging but are still expensive, and don’t require near as much wood as there is available.
Creating biochar is also attractive as a soil supplement, but you have to burn a lot of wood to generate a little biochar.
Enter Woody Biomass Burial, which reduces wildfire risk by removing waste wood from the forest.
The added benefit is that it can keep carbon dioxide out of the environment with a high degree of efficiency. Each ton of wood buried sequesters more than 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide for at least a hundred years, and likely much longer.
This technology is staring us in the face, and requires only focus, determination, and a small amount of experimentation. And as a matter of fact, the purpose of Woodcache Public Benefit Corporation is to partner with landowners and local communities to help them implement it at scale as soon as possible.
Controlled slash pile burns have their place, and are an important tool when other alternatives are not viable.
But alternatives are OFTEN available, and we should utilize them whenever possible.