Regenerating millions of western forested acres burned by large wildfires is a Herculean task costing hundreds of billions. However, healthy growing forests are essential for reducing atmospheric CO2 and providing abundant clean air and fresh water for people, crops, fish and wildlife.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, nearly 3 million acres have already burned this year in the US, mostly in Arizona, New Mexico and Alaska. By the end of the year, that total could surpass 2019, when more than 5 million acres of forest land were charred in California, Oregon and Washington.
Forest fires emitted 1.76 billion tonnes of CO2 worldwide in 2021, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service. This is equivalent to more than double Germany’s annual CO2 emissions.
Funding for reforestation of federal forest lands is woefully lacking. Fighting wildfires currently consumes 60 percent of the US Forest Service’s budget, but many forests are in desperate need of clearing to prevent wildfire fuel build-up. In a day of federal deficits of $30.5 trillion, additional funding is unlikely.
What if the Forest Service identified land that needs clearing and uses the proceeds from selling the clearing to plant trees? These logs could be processed to make wood products and provide employment to rural communities. There is already a prototype program in the Colville National Forest.
Replanting trees as soon as possible after a bushfire is one of the most important ways to reduce CO2, control erosion and prevent flooding. However, right now, we are fighting a losing battle. Every year around the world, 15 billion trees are destroyed by fire or pollution. Despite the $50 billion annually invested by governments in replanting, there is still a net loss of 6 billion trees annually.
Funding is one thing, but actual planting is quite another. This is where drones come in. An experienced and energetic tree planter can plant 800 to 1,000 seedlings on two hectares each day. On the other hand, two drone operators are 150 times faster and 4-10 times cheaper than manual planting.
Seattle-based DroneSeed developed sophisticated 3D land mapping software and precision tree planting techniques using drone swarms. The drones thoroughly map the area, and their data identifies “microsites” such as tree stumps, which would shade the seedlings and provide additional nutrients from decaying wood. The drones then drop biodegradable pods loaded with seeds, liquid nutrients and animal repellant to precise points on the ground.
DroneSeed deployed the technology in Southern Oregon four years ago. Hancock Forest Management, an international forest owner with nearly 11 million acres of forest, contracted with DroneSeed to replant a portion of its land that had been badly burned by a wildfire in 2018.
In the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, when US Forest Service scientists surveyed the 2018 Cougar Creek Fire site (41,107 acres), they found that 30 percent of the land in the Mad River drainage was so burned that it would be difficult to retain water and grow. trees for a replacement forest.
If damaged soil cannot hold water, the risk of flooding, erosion, and debris-filled muddy streams increases. These conditions are harmful to fish, wildlife and people. Deforested land is unable to capture carbon.
In cases like the Cougar Creek Fire, planting DroneSeed on steep slopes would have been worth a try, especially if we want to drastically reduce carbon emissions. Instead of barren wooded lands, fast-growing forests would convert CO2 into life-giving human oxygen.
Forests produce 40 percent of the clean water for the world’s 100 largest cities. Trees stabilize the slopes of watersheds, grow trees and clean the air of greenhouse gases. Hopefully, drone planting works as designed and speeds up reforestation. It’s a “game changer” and worth a try.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He is a past president of the Washington Business Association, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and lives in Vancouver. Contact email@example.com.