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USDA grant to test pinyon-juniper biochar on ag lands


By Famartin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
In an effort to make good use of pinyon-juniper biomass that has been removed through conservation, fuels reduction and wildlife habitat conservation projects, the Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition applied for, and received, a $75,000 Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

The grant will be used to fund the first field trials in Nevada to test whether biochar applied in production agriculture and rangeland restoration settings will increase water availability and productivity, even during drought years.

One of the major impacts on Great Basin rangelands is the encroachment and expansion of singleleaf pinyon pine and Utah juniper (PJ) outside of normal, desired locations.

PJ woodlands have been expanding since the turn of the century and occupy about 21 million acres of land in the western United States. These plants, if left unchecked by management or natural processes, end up overtaking areas formerly dominated by shrubs and grasses.

Image: BLM.

PJ expansion and encroachment decreases important wildlife habitat, especially for the Greater Sage Grouse—a sagebrush-dependent species—and increases  fuels that cause catastrophic wildfires.

“With this project, we are providing leveraging and synergy by addressing an ecological problem in one place—PJ encroachment—and using what would have been the waste product to potentially improve agriculture land and rangeland for hundreds or thousands of years,” said Jake Tibbitts, Natural Resources Manager for the Eureka County, Nevada Department of Natural Resources and the local project coordinator. “By turning woody biomass, such as PJ, into biochar, and then returning the biochar to the soil at or near the site where the biomass was harvested, we hope to maintain or improve soil moisture and productivity, improve sage grouse and other wildlife habitat and return soil carbon to historic levels.

“This technique is expected to reduce the overall cost of PJ treatment by creating a value and beneficial use for the removed woody biomass, thereby helping to stimulate the local economy while addressing a resource issue.”

While trials similar to these have taken place in laboratories or greenhouses, these trials will be the first of their kind to take place on farms in Nevada—in Diamond Valley, near Eureka.

What is biochar?

Biochar is a product of pyrolysis. It’s the result of taking organic matter, such as PJ woody biomass, and “baking” it under low oxygen conditions. The original biomass releases heat and gases during its conversion into liquids (bio-oils) and various black carbon solid products—biochar. Biochar is essentially pure carbon—a stable solid—and can remain in soil for thousands of years.

Biochar has been touted for its potential to generate energy, mitigate pollution, and store carbon, potentially mitigating climate change via carbon sequestration. It may also increase soil moisture and fertility, increase agricultural productivity and provide protection against some plant and soil-borne diseases.

For more on the NRCS’ conservation innovation grants program, visit: www.nv.nrcs.usda.gov.

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