By Paul Sunset

The project being developed in Lakeview to replace controlled burns with collection of thinned and waste forest materials on Winema National Forest lands should serve as a model for all of Oregon. The woody materials are to be transported to the Lakeview facility where they will be processed into fuel for jet aircraft. There will be no carbon dioxide or particulate emissions. Some of the water produced will be recycled through the process with the balance to waste treatment. Since 1 million tons of wood waste produces about 22 acre-feet of water, it would be desirable to purify the water to the extent the excess could be returned to the aquifer. If more facilities were developed around the state, other products such as methanol, biodiesel, and a number of “plastics” such as plywood glue, Formica, polypropylene bottle polymers, etc. could also be produced. Currently, these materials are produced from treatment of fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal. Forests and other cropland are our huge reservoir of stored renewable solar energy.

Before wigwam burners were banned due to reduction of visibility and particulate effects on those with respiratory problems, it was a rare day when we had clear skies. Today, controlled burns unnecessarily cloud our skies, waste energy, and add more greenhouse gases to our atmosphere. There is a better alternative.

Beetle-killed trees, snags in recently burned areas and areas overgrown with juniper are additional sources of woody waste. If the materials are chipped on site, some chips should be spread on site to help with regeneration of the soil. With current drought conditions, cutting some of the juniper is especially important, as well as reducing its water consumption during growth, since processing the wood releases energy, liquid fuels and water. I’m not talking about clear-cutting or other abusive practices but those that are environmentally sound. Eventually Oregon’s forests could sustainably use as many as 10 or 12 of these facilities, minimizing the size and intensity of forest fire, significantly cutting the costs of forest fire fighting, and improving Oregon’s economy.

Due to need to capture methane from fracking wells, there are now a number of companies — both public and private — developing modifications of the Fischer-Tropsch process which was discovered in the ’20s. With the need to develop renewable energy sources, these processes also apply to nearly all types of biomass. The federal land agencies would be responsible for determining and monitoring areas to be treated, contracting for removal and transportation, and the commercial processors. Across the state thousands of jobs, especially in rural areas would be created. Workers in the field would be trained in firefighting and could be readily deployed when fires are still small — before they erupt into conflagrations. It’s not just how many workers are on the fire line, but how effectively they are deployed. I paid much of the way for my college education by working for five summers for state forestry agencies in Oregon and Idaho.

Wildfire intensity has been increasing, not only due to too much fire suppression in the past, but mainly due to lack of funding for effective healthy forest management. Most older Oregonians remember the catastrophic Tillamook fires that devastated their timber-based economy. Much of the burned area was on state land. As soon as possible, volunteer groups — from schools, Boy and Girl scouts, church and fraternal groups came to plant trees. Today that is a beautiful, healthy producing forest. Let’s save all of Oregon’s forests and property from catastrophic wildfire and at the same time decrease our dependence on fossil fuels.

— Paul Sunset is a retired chemist and taught college level chemistry. He lives in Redmond.

10138453