Episode #161: The Wood Biomass Industry

Update: Guess Marcus had already sent me the iPad app referenced in the interview but I didn’t realize it!  See useful links below.  And actually the application has a web-interface that you could use on any device.  Please report back if you do start using this. 

Frank is joined by forester Marcus Kaufmann from the Oregon Department of Forestry.  Marcus breaks-down the current state of forest ecology in the Western United States, including the interruption of natural fire cycles by human suppression efforts, the role of climate change and drought in fire intensity, and the growing pressure insects are placing on our forests as the climate warms.  He discusses the social complexities of catastrophic wildfire, touching on the problem of wildland-urban interface and the institutional inertia of organizations like the Forest Service that are largely designed to fight large wildlfires.  Then Marcus tells us of ongoing efforts to create a market for small diameter wood products as an energy source, from small co-generation projects to large industrial projects like liquid fuels.

Useful links:



Episode #161: The Wood Biomass Industry — 6 Comments

  1. Wouldn’t it improve the long term health and reduce future flammability of the forest more if “excess” “flammable” biomass were chipped (and inoculated with fungi) and used as mulch and/or or made into biochar and incorporated into the soil (via plowing, trenching, or other methods). Wouldn’t more humus in the soil help protect the forest from drought? Topography can also be subtly changed via swales and ponds to improve water retention, modify local microclimate, and improve drought resistance. I realize the energy/dollar intensity of such activities probably makes them impossible now, but if it had been done in the era of cheap fossil fuel (or incorporated into logging/skidding roads from the beginning) how much could have been saved on firefighting?
    Of course low fossil fuel prices (whether coal, natural gas, or petroleum) work against renewables and conservation. Unfortunately fossil fuel prices don’t reflect the true costs (whether externalities, subsidies, or future value), so we’re overconsuming. The lack of predictability of future prices increases the risk of investment in conservation and renewables. An intelligent national energy policy would include a rising floor on fossil fuel prices.

    • Strictly from a forest management perspective (excluding any discussion of the complex fossil fuels market), fungi inoculations are probably not a great avenue in the arid West. I can get oyster mushroom to fruit prolifically in New Mexico, but it requires abundant, high quality inocolum for relatively small amounts of wood, a lot of shade, and sprinkler irrigation. It is just TOO DRY here for mushrooms to thrive. That said, I find wild mushroooms all the time but they only fruit under very specific conditions and at higher elevations. And Paul Stamets reports mushrooms fruiting even in the high desert during particularly wet years. Apparently the mycelium will lay dormant during the dry spells for years, and spring to life with some rain. Reliable enough for fungi to reproduce, to be sure, but not really a replicable strategy for our purposes. There are several species of fungi that will do well on conifers, and whole industries could be built around using the chips for food production, but the demand for chips would likely be far exceeded by the supply even in the most robust fungal economy.

      Unfortunately, people like Marcus take their cue more from Washington beauracrats than from Nature and the idea of distributed economies. Relatively large amounts of funding are being put into wood biomass as an energy source, as other projects like wood chips for things like land reclamation and mine site mitigation are totally neglected, even though they may make more economic sense. And people who are in the forest management community have little knowledge of or experience with permaculture…they are in some ways a community unto themselves and much more involved in government programs and initiatives than the permaculture community.

      • I have to imagine in places where fire is at the doorstep of wealthy communities, like around the edges of LA, there would be an insurance and prevention incentive that would pay for proactive mulching of the understory on a massive scale. It’s just a matter of laziness — no proactive mulchers have shown up in the hills of LA and San Diego yet, doesn’t mean the money isn’t there.

        Jean Pain did this on a small scale in Provence, but there’s very little documentation of what he accomplished.

        A similar opportunity exists for grazers in power line and gas pipeline rights of way, roadsides, orchards, and probably many other niches. What is normally the domain of gasoline tools and biocides could be shepard’s work. But there are probably less than a dozen such herds in the US right now.

        It’s certainly not too dry for wood-eating mushrooms to thrive in the burning areas of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana. I don’t know about Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico — I’d expect if you were a mycologist, you could mulch the understory at a variety of sample sites, watch those spaces for several years, select and breed the existing fungi, and end up with good propagation stock for a regional forest-fuel-eating project. Not sure if you have any existing sizeable mushroom businesses in New Mexico.

  2. In this case, I’m not all that concerned about the production of edible fungi. Innoculation will help the chips decompose into humus.
    Jean Pain and his wife Ida wrote a book about their methods. See: https://archive.org/details/Another_Kind_of_Garden-The_Methods_of_Jean_Pain
    The work continues: http://www.jean-pain.com/en/index2.php
    He used big piles of chips (~10-50 tons) to heat greenhouses and houses, heat biogas digesters, and make compost.
    Other good articles include:

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