Hugelkultur — a way to manage public forests more productively while coping with wildfires?

Germans, Swiss and other Europeans have always managed their forests thoughtfully. They see forestry as a foundation of environmental health and a precious resource. Perhaps the U.S. Forest Service and other forest managers could adapt a German technique — Hugelkultur — into a tool for enhancing American forest wildlife, improving timber production, and managing wildfires.

November 13, 2018 — Gardeners in Europe and parts of America have long used Hugelkultur for sustained production. The term means "raised bed:" Logs, sticks and brush are laid in a shallow trench, and dirt is piled on top to build a long mound. Over many years, mycorrhizal fungi infiltrate the entire bed of piled logs, converting their carbon into nourishment for crops growing above. About half of the weight of many crops arises from respired carbon exuded from the soil. Decaying logs are a huge reserve of carbon.

The idea of using forest-scale Hugelkultur terraced berms to protect and enhance forests sprang to mind after we watched a PBS documentary, The Big Burn. It described America's largest forest wildfire, which in 1910 burned more than three million acres in Colorado. It also described origins of the U.S. Forest Service and its "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires" crusade for the past century. That was the dream of Gifford Pinchot, environmentalist buddy of President Teddy Roosevelt, who made Pinchot head of the original U.S. Forest Service. 

Bottom line of the documentary: Totally preventing forest fires for a century, versus allowing natural burns every two or three decades, has proven a powerful way to build up massive tonnages of combustible forest-floor fuel. Today's wildfires, powered by layers of dead incendiary wood, are often unstoppable. They burn with such horrendous heat that natural timber regrowth is almost impossible. 

The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board today reaffirmed in an essay, California's Paradise Lost, that our environmental  regulators have choked effective forest management with other layers, too — thick burdens of bureaucracy imposed from the top down. Citing President Trump's tweeted critique of forest management, the Journal editors wrote:  

"Mr. Trump has no empathy gene even if he is right about forestry ills. Relentless winds and low air moisture make California’s fires harder to contain while development is putting more people in danger. But also fueling the fires is an overgrown government bureaucracy that frustrates proper forest management.

"About 57% of California forestland is owned by the federal government while most of the rest is private land regulated by the state. Nearly 130 million trees died in California between 2010 and 2017 due to drought and a bark beetle infestation. Dense forests put trees at greater risk for parasitic infection and enable fires to spread faster. When dead trees fall, they add more combustible fuel. 

"Once upon a time the U.S. Forest Service’s mission was to actively manage the federal government’s resources. Yet numerous laws over the last 50 years, including the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act, have hampered tree-clearing, controlled burns and timber sales on federal land."

Update November 16:  Today's Wall Street Journal reports that California's forest wildfires are prompting "more logging" and greater productive use of timber sales and controlled burns. 

A garden-sized Hugelkultur bed. The wood will be covered with soil,
providing a nourishing base for crops. Imagine miles of wide terraces
built this way through forests.

Now, envision the next century of public forest management with commercial loggers teaming up with U.S. Forestas to sculpture contoured Hugelkultur terraced firebreaks across forested mountains. The concept is elegantly explained by Permaculture magazine, but only on a gardening scale. The nearby photo shows the foundation of a Hugelkultur bed in a garden. The logs and branches will be overlain with a layer of soil, which in turn will support abundant crops for the grower. 

In a forest setting, Hugelkultur berms could be firebreak-wide, mounded gently and contoured. The underground bed of decomposing logs would spawn a massive bloom of beneficial mycorrhizal fungi stretching the entire miles-long length of the berm, and radiating up and down the mountainside. The open strips would allow abundant sunshine into the more fertile beds, converting the ecosphere for a wider array of species and wildlife habitat. 

That's a contrast to dense forests with only one tree species, which severely restricts the array of wildlife. The Forest Service could trade mature trees to timber firms for gradual development of contoured berms on public land. Gradually, both selective tree harvest and controlled burns would become more profitable and manageable. The nation could return to a "productive use" philosophy of public forests, not lock-and-leave-it.

Communities on the forest fringes would be better shielded from wildfires by the more open strips. Visually, they'd be fairly unobtrusive, possibly even appealing like the contoured mountain slopes of China's tea and rice growing regions. First priority would be contoured Hugelkultur pathways at lower elevations, which would help protect homes and business firms which tend to spread into mountain valleys.

Here in Iowa at Renewable Farming, team member Blake Carlson has built Hugelkultur mounds using softwood and hardwood logs and branches delivered by tree services. What can't qualify as top-grade firewood for sale goes into compost or Hugelkultur beds. These are the foundations for fruit and nut trees. We also used a two-foot-thick "biofilter" of wood chips above our farm pond, to screen out soil swept in from our neighbor's tilled and dry-fertilized farm fields. It's astonishing to see how rapidly fungi and bacteria devour raw lignin in shredded, chipped tree limbs delivered by tree service firms.

A few decades ago when visiting a bio-pioneer, Bruce Tanio, founder of Tanio Biologicals of Spokane, WA, Bruce related that his favorite source of residue breakdown organisms for ag use was a single decomposing log on a mountainside near Spokane. Today, after learning a bit more about Hugelkultur, it's clear why a rotting log could prove so precious to someone who knows about these undercover wonders.