Climate solutions collide at Shores Scotch broom site

Collaborative effort hopes to control invasive weed by burning it into useful byproduct

Even as a crew of five young workers, clad in yellow-fire resistant jackets, lofted forest-green shrubs to the top of a cackling burn pile, heaps of the gristly stems and branches continued to pile up faster than they disappeared.

Two days before, the crew, a team of Washington Conservation Corps workers from Elma, had sliced the shrubs from roughly a quarter-acre of land near the southern end of the Ocean Shores peninsula, enough to fill five dump trucks en route to the city’s public works yard.

That’s a relatively small sample. The prolific plant — Scotch broom — fills the entirety of an area nearly 100-times its size.

Scotch broom is an invasive and destructive shrub native to Europe that boasts bright yellow flowers in the spring, when it’s a common sight along roadsides, fields and river valleys across Western Washington. Once it takes hold, the plant is notoriously difficult to purge, but its eradication and restoration of the damaged land is the goal of a new project underway in Ocean Shores.

Each of the project’s two simple steps — cutting and burning — present a natural remedy for climate change: restoring native plants and biodiversity more likely to suck carbon from the atmosphere, and a cleanly-burned byproduct — biochar — that can do the same when applied to the damaged soil.

Those concepts, especially the former, have been applied by Jill Silver in river valleys and forests up and down the Washington Coast. Silver is the executive director of the 10,000 Years Institute, an environmental nonprofit with a focus on Scotch broom prevention and control, and providing jobs in the process. Now, in its newest project, the nonprofit is working with the Quinault Nation Enterprise Board, which owns the Scotch broom-filled land next to the Quinault Marina, to cut and then burn 25 acres of Scotch broom plants.

The nonprofit will complete the work with a grant from the Washington Coast Restoration and Resiliency Initiative and funding from the Quinault board. Silver said the nonprofit treats 1,000 acres of Scotch broom per year and has built a field crew of 100 members composed of workers from the Washington Conservation Corps, its own crew of 25 and others. The nonprofit works with a budget of about $1.4 million in funding from the state Legislature each biennium, Silver said.

With the project, Silver hopes to build on Scotch broom eradication work conducted in 2019, when crews cleared about 20 acres of the invasive plant from the sand dunes lining the Pacific Ocean. That work also involved educating people about Scotch broom, Silver said.

“I want to encourage this city and its residents to become empowered and start working on it,” Silver said Monday.

But when crews stopped working during the COVID pandemic, the plant came back in full force in other areas, especially at the property near the marina, leading the city to help facilitate a project in collaboration with 10,000 Years Institute and the Quinault Indian Nation.

“You could smell it when you drove by because it was so thick,” said Ocean Shores grant writer Sarah Bisson.

Scotch broom spreads when its seed pods explode, launching seeds outward up to 20 feet. The seeds can remain viable for an average of 30 years and sometimes up to 80 years, and have adapted to surviving in water. Scotch broom grows in dense stands and leaves little hope for coexistence with native plants.

“As soon as we take them out, there are thousands of seedlings coming up,” Silver said.

The Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board designates Scotch broom as a “class B” weed, meaning control measures are mandated in areas where the plant is not already abundant, such as east of the Cascades. Control is localized where Scotch broom has taken hold west of the Cascades.

In a 2017 economic assessment, the weed control board compiled Scotch broom’s potential impacts to timber, livestock, crops and recreation if left unchecked, and found about $142 million and 660 jobs were on the line.

Scotch broom flourishes in disturbed landscapes — roads, logging clearcuts and burned areas. That means eradicating the plant through fire, as the most recent project intends to do, is not as simple as lighting fire to a field and watching it go.

Silver said the group will most likely pursue a “trench burning” method in 30-foot long trenches at the marina site. The key is forcing airflow through the top of the burn, which recirculates and burns rising smoke, limiting air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions.

Scotch broom burns “hot and clear and fast,” Silver said, another characteristic that makes it hazardous to surrounding houses if left unchecked.

The trench burning method produces a similar burn to the large, steel “biochar” kilns that have become increasingly popular with ecological restoration groups, tribes, universities and government agencies for reducing excess fuels and conducting burn science at a small scale. Kelpie Wilson, a kiln designer and biochar expert, attended the demonstration project in Ocean Shores last week, and brought one of her circular, seven-and-a-half foot, double-walled “ring of fire” kilns.

Wilson, who has sold more than 250 of the portable kilns since she started designing them about seven years ago, explained that the kiln burns woody debris so efficiently, in an oxygen-deprived burning process called pyrolysis, that almost no smoke escapes from its roof.

The process is similar to creating charcoal, but instead creates burned bits of wood with an environment bent — biochar fights global warming by reducing the rate at which soil releases carbon into the atmosphere. The product can be used as fertilizer in gardens, to reduce agricultural waste on farms, and to help produce clean energy, according to the International Biochar Initiative.

In 2022 the Washington state Legislature passed Senate Bill 5961, incentivizing the use of biochar in government contracts. Sponsored in part by Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-24th District, who represents most of the Olympic Peninsula, the bill states that “all state agencies and local governments shall consider whether biochar products can be utilized” in public works projects, and mandates the use of biochar when feasible.

Ocean Shores City Administrator Scott Andersen said the city has not identified potential uses for the biochar as of now.

Biochar can be produced with a variety of tactics, and Silver said during a presentation to the Ocean Shores City Council on Monday that the trench burning method should be similar in effectiveness as using a large metal kiln. Silver said the group originally intended to use the kilns for the project and last week’s demonstration, but switched gears after they weren’t able to secure a burn permit from the Olympic Region Clean Air Agency. Dan Nelson, a spokesperson for the agency, said its compliance office declined to issue a permit for the kiln because the agency considers it a “large burn barrel,” and “burn barrels of any size or type are not permitted under Washington state law.”

“The device does not meet local or state requirements for clean burning,” Nelson said in an email, adding that the only exception to the law is for tribal lands, which are subject to clean air laws of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Still, Silver hopes to secure a permit for the kiln to conduct burning on the marina property. She said the biochar could be sold, donated or spread out to help heal the land previously infested with Scotch broom.

The whole process will be labor intensive — an upside to these types of projects, which Silver says can support local communities with jobs and fight climate change in one fell swoop.

“I’m enthused about having those jobs as much as I regret every time a plant goes to seed,” Silver said.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or

Clayton Franke / The Daily World
Kelpie Wilson, left, talks about her biochar kiln during a demonstration at the Ocean Shores public works yard on Oct. 18. Wilson has sold more than 250 of the steel kilns, which are a tool for producing biochar — burned remnants of organic matter especially effective at reducing carbon emissions in soil.

Clayton Franke / The Daily World Kelpie Wilson, left, talks about her biochar kiln during a demonstration at the Ocean Shores public works yard on Oct. 18. Wilson has sold more than 250 of the steel kilns, which are a tool for producing biochar — burned remnants of organic matter especially effective at reducing carbon emissions in soil.