Land Bank hopes to receive grant funding to continue current and new projects

The San Juan County Conservation Land Bank expects to hear back in the coming weeks whether or not they will be the recipients of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation grant, which goes to support Natural Climate Solutions in the Pacific Northwest. If approved for the grant, the funding would go towards expanding the Land Bank’s forest thinning and biochar project, as well as piloting a new carbon-capturing project.

Forest thinning and biochar projects are wrapped into the Land Bank’s overall forest management strategy. According to the Land Bank’s Director, Lincoln Bormann, many of the forested areas on the island are unhealthy – many are overwrought with densely-packed Douglas Fir, providing little habitat for wildlife, taking up resources from other vegetation and increasing risk of devastating wildfires.

Some of the Land Bank’s properties are already in good shape and require only slight caretaking and monitoring, but a significant amount of the properties that the Land Bank oversees involve more active forest management. As a response, the organization has shifted to a more hands-on involvement in addressing these issues, particularly on Mt. Grant and Turtleback Mountain, for the last five years.

“The way to manage the situation is to start thinning trees…we start with an assessment such as which areas we really need to be working in and then figuring out how to prioritize them,” said Bormann.

The Land Bank works with contractors as well as the Washington Conservation Corps and the Island Conservation Corps to complete the thinning, and are constantly looking for and applying for grants to pay the contractors and Conservation Corps. Thankfully, they have been fairly successful in receiving grants through the Department of Ecology to fund these projects.

During the thinning process, the cut trees are separated into piles. Larger Douglas Fir are made into wildlife refuge piles, which involve laying logs on top of each other to make larger, woody biomass. According to Bormann, this kind of biomass, called coarse woody debris, exists in old-growth forests with bigger trees and creates many habitats for different species of birds and insects as it sits and decomposes on the forest floor.

Thinner Douglas Fir trees are put into burn piles, where they will be turned into biochar by process of a conservation burn. In this process, material is combusted at high temperatures to create the biochar, or charcoal, but without airflow at the bottom of the burn pile. As the pile burns from the top down, a layer of charcoal forms beneath the fire that eventually needs to be extinguished. Despite the lack of overall efficiency in conservation burning, Bormann says they’ve been able to produce a significant amount of biochar – 85 cubic yards, equivalent to 16 tons of carbon – over the years.

The purpose of creating biochar is more than just removing overgrowth and reducing fire risk in forests. Charcoal has many benefits, the first being that it is a stable form of carbon, preventing it from going into the atmosphere, whereas carbon would be released into the atmosphere in a fire or forest degradation. Charcoal is also very useful to the environment with its ability to hold water with its large surface area, hosting different symbiotic organisms and fungi, which exchange nutrients with tree roots.

“The Charcoal is hosting the fungus and helping to retain moisture in the soil so that area is better able to withstand droughts – it’s just really enriching the soil in general,” said Bormann. “Our forest soils are not in great shape either, and so it just kind of makes sense to leave [the biochar] where it is and try to enrich those areas. What we’re left with is a stand of trees that’s healthier and then we’ve planted a diverse array of plants underneath so that we’ve got more biodiversity. It’s a much better wildlife habitat, just a much better functioning system.”

If the Land Bank receives the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation grant, part of the funding will go towards purchasing kilns for creating biochar. The kilns allow for more control of airflow around the base of the fire, making it a more efficient way to make larger amounts of biochar with less particulates released.

Another portion of the grant would go towards piloting a new project centered around enhanced weathering, a process that speeds up the natural weathering of minerals that are able to store atmospheric carbon dioxide. As it turns out, basalt is one of these minerals that does a good job of storing carbon, and this mineral exists in high volumes across the state. Basalt is often used to make gravel, and in the process of making it, a large amount of ground-up basalt is produced, which currently does not have much use. Research has shown that minerals like basalt are effective at absorbing carbon dioxide. The idea is to put ground basalt, or similar minerals, on farm fields to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Other benefits come with placing these minerals on farms. Rich with compounds like potassium, calcium and magnesium that are important to plant growth, basalt and similar minerals can help fertilize the fields and potentially improve crop yield, according to Bormann. Additionally, any run-off produced from rain or watering that comes in contact with the basalt dust will be alkaline, which helps to neutralize marine environments that are becoming increasingly acidic due to absorbing carbon dioxide.

The Land Bank has been working with the Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture to help import basalt from the Port Angeles area to San Juan Island and Lopez Island, and they will help the Land Bank study how quickly and effectively the basalt can store carbon as it is spread across farming properties owned by the Land Bank. Bormann said they plan to make some of the basalt dust available to private farm owners as well.

Bormann believes that San Juan County and its very strong stance on climate change, stands out amongst other counties in the state. He hopes that by piloting this enhanced weathering project, it can inspire usage of this resource that is high in abundance across the state to mitigate climate change.

“We have an immense opportunity to broaden [enhanced weathering] to a much much bigger scale,” said Bormann. “And so I think one of the key elements here is just educating people in the state and raising the visibility of this issue and this concept so it will take off at a much broader level…and really hoping that we will have outsized influence over what happens around the state and elsewhere.”