When the first rain falls
Posted on October 2, 2012

In a nutshell when disaster strikes a forest or a natural setting the consequences are brought to bear and exacerbated exponentially when the first rain falls. That rain fall and how it is managed will determine how long, how well and how successful the restoration process will be. Historically, many of the fire remediation and restoration efforts are very costly, slow to respond and not very successful in establishing new ground cover. This makes it difficult to see the benefit and to intervene in a timely manner taking advantage of the coming rain for establishing new growth, preventing further erosion and storing water in the soil.

Applying learned lessons from natural systems we can easily and quickly create precision interventions on contour that will slow water down, spread it and make it sink in. Using living biology, structured soil and key line principles of working on counter to establish seedlings with companion plants will generate a forest that is stronger than the one destroyed. Looking at examples like Mount Saint Helens and different natural disasters where the soil biology is strong the rapid regeneration astounds the scientists. (Featured on Nasa’s Earth Observatory World of Change site) We now have the knowledge and the understanding to be able to recreate the conditions that make forest regeneration possible. Currently there are pioneers and entrepreneurs doing this work for one tenth of the price as traditional remediation efforts.

More importantly for 10% effort, the practices employed do 90% of the work. We don’t have to wait 30 years for recovery! The above happened in 30 days! January 4 on first picture. February 7 on first picture. A small intervention at the right place during the right time can make a huge difference.

Many of the recovery areas are in or adjacent to human habitat. So with a small amount of precise well directed effort, we can let the water do the work and welcome the moisture we receive. The storm water is slowed down, the detritus builds up behind the low impact felled logs on contour or slash on contour or straw wattles on contour. ON CONTOUR being the precise part of the best management practice. These repetitive small structures are like topographic ribs. A small rainfall event of less than 1” can build up 2” of detritus, ash, and soil particles behind one of these ribs. After 3” of rain, we’ve seen 4-6” of detritus built up, the broadcast quick cover seeds have a perfect place to germinate. The continual build up in this area backs up water, and lets it sit and sink into the soil. These same ribs will be the perfect place in another season to start seedlings to further speed reforestation in areas closest to human habitat.

A huge economic opportunity exists for disaster sites to adapt the zero waste model. (www.garyliss.com, part of the Carbon Economy Series) The cleaning up mode often amounts to millions and millions of dollars spent on disposal and transportation. Instead we must look at the debris as an asset or resource. The on site debris in a burn recovery area contains burned logs that can be felled on contour in place. These logs are laid end to end one log high. The stumps are left on the low side to wedge the log against. Branches can be limbed off with a chainsaw and used to fill in the gaps between the log and the existing terrain grade insuring soil contact. The remaining vegetative debris from a burn area can be shredded in place to provide a mulch area for soil moisture protection and retention. It can be shredded on contour in one pass with a forestry mulcher or it can be mulched by a chipper shredder in one large pile, and used in the stuffing of wattle erosion control logs. Slash on contour is providing amazing results in burn area recovery, especially for supporting native revegetation.

The strategy of “debris removal” is wasteful and does not maximize these resources. Compound costs are created where there is already a shortage of money. Instead revenue can be generated by reusing, recycling, re designing or re thinking how this biomass can be used in place. Just cutting out transportation saves 70% of the cost and generates local employment, and that is at todays fuel prices.

New Mexico is poised in a perfect place to become a show case for sustainable living and fire restoration. Think Greensburg, Kansas after the tornado. One of the opportunities in disaster is a clean slate… an opening for a grand new vision. Having so many higher education institutions as well as primary and secondary schools that are committed to the environment and ecology allow the creative potential for innovative solutions to be great. To solicit from these institutions and communities to come up with solutions could really open the lid to imagination, creativity, and new business development. Enrolling and educating people to make their communities more sustainable, more resilient and with the ability of transitioning into whatever the climate, politics or society brings is what will determine a better and different future.

Water follows carbon so the more organic matter/ carbon available in the soil the greater the capacity of the soil to hold water. The inter capillary water in the soil is greater than all the water in the oceans, streams, rivers and aquifers combined many times over. (As carbon is reduced in the soil so does the ability to hold water. ) In the air the same thing happens, the more carbon, the more water: producing torrential precipitation.

The capacity to absorb this water is the difference between life or disaster. Looking at examples of the huge rainfalls that happened in the Middle East where 10 inches of rain fell but none of it penetrated into the soil. (The Cost of Environmental Degradation: Case Studies from the Middle East and North Africa, Lelia Croitoru, editor, and Maria Sarraf, editor) Instead, flooding, destruction and erosion of the little soil that was present is what occurred. We must be proactive and savvy in the natural patterns and cycles that brought us here and use them in our regeneration efforts. We must also be savvy in the exponential economics we create in our regeneration efforts.

Its easy to see that the vegetation that is alive with branches and all kinds of under story plants is a lot more resilient to wind, fire , water, pests and disease. The most important thing we can do is to use precipitation to generate forests, vegetation and a diverse, understory to stabilize topsoil and build more.

Food production is essential to survival and when topsoil is lost the growing of food becomes nearly impossible. Vital to any community is establishing safe food systems. This meaning not only safety from natural disasters and pests, but safety for the people eating the food that is produced in an organic fashion without additives or poisons and also in terms of seed sovereignty and local food production.

In addition, on a broader sense utilizing system thinking to develop self sustainable communities 50 to 100 miles away from each other in order to build resilience and diversity may be part of the new grand vision that is provided by the clean slate of disaster. At a state level this would allow for healthy trading as well as greater food production security and would encourage tapping into the production of renewable resources for local use. All of this strengthens the state’s economy.

In traditional methods of reforestation or fire damage restoration, the costs are very high due to heavy machinery, fuel costs, bureaucracy and specialized personnel. Innovative companies exist that use the latest technology to survey and intervene with precision earth works that go beyond restoration to regeneration of what was there to begin with.

We must act swiftly, precisely and with the most pertinent data. That is why the Carbon Economy Series can help with the education and training of the local New Mexicans with cutting edge forest and food regeneration strategies taught by the best in the world. Chief Scientist at Rodale Institute and President and Director of Research at Soil Foodweb Inc., Dr. Ingham is one of the world’s leading soil microbiologists with 30 years of experience researching and teaching about creatures under the soil will teach in Santa Fe. Her energetic and easy-to-understand teaching style brings the soil foodweb to life. Dr. Ingham holds a doctorate in Microbiology with an emphasis on soilfrom Colorado State University. She is also an affiliate professor at Maharishi University of Management in Iowa and has served in academia for two decades. Soil Foodweb, Inc. helps farmers all over the world to grow more resilient crops by understanding and improving their soil. Rodale Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to pioneering organic farming through research and outreach.

Iginia Boccalandro

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