Drones can help replant forests burned by wildfires

Regenerating millions of wooded acres in the West burned by great wildfires is a Herculean task costing hundreds of billions. However, healthy growing forests are essential for reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide and providing clean air and fresh water for people, crops, fish and wildlife.

Wildfires had burned 2.6 million acres across the United States, mostly in Arizona, New Mexico and Alaska, by early July, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. By the end of the year, that total could exceed 2019, when more than 5 million acres of forest land burned in California, Oregon and Washington.

Wildfires emitted 1.76 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, globally in 2021, according to the European Union’s Copernicus atmosphere monitoring service. This is more than double Germany’s annual emissions.

Funding for the reforestation of federal forest lands is sorely lacking. Currently, fighting forest fires consumes 60% of the US Forest Service’s budget.

Yet many forests are in desperate need of thinning to prevent fuel buildup in wildfires. In a day of $30.5 trillion federal deficits, additional funding is unlikely.

What if the Forest Service identified land in need of thinning and used the proceeds from the sale of the thinning to plant trees? These logs could be processed to make wood products and create jobs in rural communities.

A prototype program is already in place in the Colville National Forest.

Replanting trees as soon as possible after a wildfire is one of the most important ways to reduce carbon dioxide, control erosion and prevent flooding. However, right now we are fighting a losing battle

Each year in the world, 15 billion trees are destroyed by fire or pollution. Despite $50 billion per year spent on replanting, there is an annual net loss of 6 billion trees.

Financing is one thing, but the actual planting is another. This is where drones come in. An experienced and energetic tree planter can plant 800 to 1,000 seedlings on two acres each day. On the other hand, two drone operators are 150 times faster and up to 10 times cheaper than manual planting.

DroneSeed of Seattle has developed sophisticated 3D soil mapping software and precision tree planting techniques using drone swarms.

Drones map the area and their data identifies “micro-sites,” such as stumps, that would shade seedlings and provide additional nutrients from decaying wood. The drones then launch biodegradable capsules loaded with seeds, liquid nutrients and animal repellent at specific locations 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 woodland, has contracted DroneSeed to replant some of its land that burned in 2018.

In the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, when Forest Service scientists inspected the 2018 Cougar Creek fire site (41,107 acres), they found that 30% of the soil in the Mad River drainage was so badly burned that it would be difficult to retain water and grow trees for replacement forest.

If damaged soil cannot hold water, it increases the risk of flooding, erosion, and streams filled with muddy debris. These conditions are detrimental to fish, wildlife and people. Bare forest 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 significantly reduce carbon emissions. Instead of barren, barren woodlands, fast-growing forests would convert the carbon dioxide into the oxygen we breathe.

Forests produce 40% of the drinking water in the world’s 100 largest cities.

Trees stabilize slopes in watersheds, grow trees, and purify our air of greenhouse gases. Hopefully the drone planting works as planned and speeds up reforestation. It’s a “game changer” and worth a try.

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