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Idaho Team Semifinalist for $160M in Climate Change Funds

A University of Idaho-led team, one of 34 semi-finalists for the largest ever grant program from the National Science Foundation, hopes to improve communication across sectors to better address climate change.

A vegetation fire burns east of Blacks Creek Road
A vegetation fire burns east of Blacks Creek Road and south of Interstate 84 near Boise in late June.
Sarah A. Miller/TNS
Every summer, the weather we are experiencing could be the coolest such season for the rest of our lives.

In some places, summer is synonymous with wildfire season and cities are using bomb shelters as emergency cooling centers to escape heatwaves. Is choking on smoke the new norm? Could the golden days of pool parties and outdoor barbecues become few and far between because being outside is just not worth it?

Are we sleepwalking toward a climate catastrophe?

Most scientists agree that climate change is the defining crisis of this generation and have dedicated their careers to the cause. But progress can be limited because approaches are disjunct and poorly integrated across societal sectors. The forestry folks might not be talking to the farmers, and it could be that neither compares notes with tribes, politicians, colleges or company CEOs.

University of Idaho professor Tara Hudiburg, part of a team that is trying to end disjointed efforts and fight climate change through collaboration, explained over a video conference call with the Idaho Statesman: “It’s a social problem.”

That team is a semifinalist to receive a massive amount of funding it could use to help turns things around for a warming planet.

A Columbia River Basin Regional Partnership is Born

The University of Idaho-led team, recognizing the need for communication across sectors, plans to bring forces together with its think tank, called FIERCE: Fueling an Innovative, Equitable and Resilient Climate-smart Economy. It links multiple organizations from the Columbia River Basin, which spans much of Idaho, Oregon and Washington, as well as a little bit of Montana.

The team was assembled by word of mouth and includes 20 partner organizations, each bringing different skills and practices to the table.

On June 14, the National Science Foundation, one of the major U.S. funding agencies, put out a press release announcing that FIERCE was selected from 188 teams to be among the 34 semifinalists for an NSF Engines Type 2 award, a flagship initiative that can finance projects for up to 10 years and provide up to $160 million.

It’s the largest grant program the NSF has ever undertaken, specifically designed to boost economic conditions in regions that have “not fully participated in the technology boom of the past several decades.”

The map showing the semifinalists reveals a very lumpy geographic distribution. Most are concentrated east of the Mississippi River, and FIERCE is notably the only entity in the Northwest.

“We have that competitive advantage of having a land base that hasn’t been so extracted,” Hudiburg said. “We’re not trying to do this in the desert.”

Hudiburg believes the Northwest has the productive agriculture and forest sectors to be able to significantly effect greenhouse gas emissions levels.

“We have the trees. We have the crops. We have the people who know how to do it,” she said, noting that centuries of knowledge about sustainable agriculture methods make the Northwest uniquely situated to tackle climate change issues.

“The tribes have eons, millennia of knowledge about how to sustainably manage land,” according to Hudiburg, and they’re willing to partner with FIERCE to affect change and fuel a resilient economy.

Efforts Underway from FIERCE

Recently there’s been a big push for agrivoltaics, or the process of integrating solar panels into cropping. It’s an idea that has been around for decades but is just now gaining steam in the context of a warming world.

Simply shading cows and crops — the solar panels can be mounted high enough to allow for plenty of movement underneath — can create better conditions for them to live and to grow. As plants lose water, the panels structurally provide a capped microclimate, which enhances humidity conditions in the space below.

All the while, the solar infrastructure can create energy for other uses, such as running instrumentation or powering the grid.

For instance, plant nurseries for baby trees are incredibly energy intensive, according to Hudisburg. But agrivoltaics can help these ventures create more energy than they’re using.

“We want to be the carrot, not the stick,” said Hudisburg, who laid out a plan for using a sticker system to market commodities as “climate-smart” if they’ve implemented a practice committed to reducing emissions.

She said agrivolataics is just one of many ways FIERCE plans to implement and support “climate-smart” technologies. Already companies and ag producers are leveraging cutting-edge scientific advances to promote climate-smart products from what would be waste streams. With grant money, Hudisburg said, there could be a vast expansion of this work, and she discussed many examples.

C6 Forest to Farm is a nonprofit company using waste wood from wildfire mitigation treatments. Its product, biochar, stores carbon long term, but also can be mixed with exotic dung beetles and used as a fertilizer. There are even efforts to make asphalt out of biochar, since it improves the structural strength of the street.

Mike Maughan and Lili Cai, both professors at the University of Idaho, are working on having 3-D printed houses made from sawdust and wood waste.

Maughan explained how it’s possible to reuse materials from torn-down houses to print new houses. This “circular” process can simultaneously cut costs while helping to address a housing crisis, he said.

Cai, the chemist of the duo, is even designing chemicals that are fire retardant but still nontoxic, and could be incorporated into materials to build a house that is resilient to future fires.

As part of a collaboration with the Pacific Northwest National Lab, microbiologists and microbe ecologists in the region are teaming up to engineer microbial populations that store more carbon in the soil.

But it turns out that microbes can play many beneficial roles for farmers.

The Hasselstrom Farm in Winchester long ago transitioned to no-till practices, which promote the capture of carbon and moisture in the soil. In 2021, Eric Hasselstrom added a carbon capture technology called Bio-Agtiv. This technology, packaged in kits that mount onto tractors, can capture emissions from equipment and reassimilate them into food for microbes. The resulting “bacterial broth” can be dropped back down in the fields as fertilizer.

Despite a historic drought, the Hasselstrom Farm experienced higher yields compared to its neighbors, with 23 bushels of garbanzo beans compared to their neighbors’ 10 bushels, according to the PNW 2021 Water Year Report.

Dan Lakey, a farmer from Soda Springs, also took a gamble on Bio-Agtiv and saw his wheat yields shoot up from 10 bushels to 45 bushels per acre, according to a video he made with the company.

Hudisburg said money from the National Science Foundation would allow FIERCE to implement projects and make stories like these more widespread.

Thousands of New Jobs, and New Hope

The Columbia River Basin has three times more jobs in agriculture and forestry than the rest of the United States. But the current number of workers in these industries falls dramatically short of what’s needed to sustain the region.

“FIERCE would be mitigating this impact, and could reverse it,” Hudisburg said.

Because of low wages and high physical demands, only one in two open positions in forestry and agriculture are being filled nationwide. Working with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to provide specialized and technical STEM training programs for farmers and foresters, FIERCE aims to generate a highly trained workforce that can help fill the gap.

“We expect to directly generate 2,000 to 5,000 new jobs,” Hudisburg said. “If you factor in the support positions that will spin off, we estimate those numbers increase to 12,000 to 30,000 new jobs over 10 years.”

Even after that 10 years is up, FIERCE has a plan for revenue streams to try to make sure its business is self-sustaining. Within 10 years, the plan is to leave the comforts of the University of Idaho campus.

The jobs the FIERCE company plans to create are intended to be lucrative technical careers with higher median wages, Hudisburg said.

“We want to make sure it’s a career path for anybody,” she noted.

In an era of climate change doom and gloom, it can be hard to see a way forward. Hudisburg tried to provide some assurance that it’s not too late to help the planet, and that initiatives such as FIERCE can make a difference.

“We can turn it around,” she said. “The science is all there.”

©2023 The Idaho Statesman. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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