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Forest Thinning To Reduce Wildfire Risk Gives Opportunity To New Startups

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As the risk of wildfire grows, scientists say the U.S. needs to aggressively thin out overgrown forests. That's expensive and it can create massive piles of worthless brush and branches. Sam Brasch of Colorado Public Radio reports some businesses see a new market.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: If there's a piece of wood out there, James Gaspard will probably take it.

JAMES GASPARD: We take waste wood, dead trees, charred trees.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY RUNNING)

BRASCH: Gaspard owns Biochar Now in Berthoud, Colo. At the company's main location, we watch cranes load beetle-eaten logs into a shredder. A conveyor belt then spits the chunks into rusty metal kilns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY RUNNING)

GASPARD: Each kiln is taking 11 cubic yards of shredded trees, and we're converting it into carbon in a vacuum environment.

BRASCH: The burning process creates something called biochar, a carbon-rich charcoal that helps soil retain water and nutrients. Gaspard says Colorado's legal cannabis industry loves the stuff for its plants. But lately, fires have come up with all sorts of other uses - animal feed, cat litter, even soap.

GASPARD: We're making a market for the stuff that had no market.

BRASCH: Many foresters see entrepreneurs like Gaspard as essential to confronting a new era of massive wildfires. Tim Reader works with the Colorado State Forest Service. He says millions of acres across the state need treatment, but it'd be expensive.

TIM READER: Just to treat 10% of our landscape that's the most prone to fire at current costs $4 billion.

BRASCH: And that's just in Colorado. Tens of millions more acres need work across the West, according to federal estimates. Reader says the traditional timber industry often isn't interested in helping pay for those projects because they don't produce the best wood.

READER: It's typically coming from these really dense areas, the forests. So they're typically very small, bent stems, crooked - basically, not a form of the log that's conducive to processing into a solid product.

BRASCH: But some companies aren't deterred by those quirks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY RUNNING)

BRASCH: At Golden West Pine Mills in Ault, Colo., Andy Hinz saws trees from a fire mitigation project. These boards will become the backing for taxidermied animal heads. Inside his shop, Hinz has bigger ambitions.

ANDY HINZ: I guess you might say where all the magic happens in here.

BRASCH: Hinz is at work on an assembly line to make wood siding, gluing narrow pieces into broader panels.

HINZ: The areas that we log just give us so many small-diameter trees. And people still want wide material.

BRASCH: The federal government has grants to help companies develop these sorts of alternative wood products. Hinz has applied for one. Past recipients have won money to turn wood into biofuel, burn it for electricity, even make it into beams strong enough for skyscrapers. The list is fascinating. But experts warn Western forests need more than scrap wood startups.

COURTNEY SCHULTZ: We also have to recognize that there's a need for public investment.

BRASCH: This is Courtney Schultz, a forest scientist at Colorado State University. When it comes to fuel reduction, she says the challenge is often just capacity. Neither the Forest Service nor the timber industry has enough resources.

SCHULTZ: We need to start thinking about wood products as a co-benefit that will work in some places, but it's not going to be the answer to our problems.

BRASCH: In other words, private companies can't fix Western forests on their own. She's glad some members of Congress want to spend billions to make communities and woodlands more fire-resistant.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Brasch in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN MERCER'S "HERE COME THE WARM JETS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.