In Utah's backcountry, you're liable to see wide stretches of open space populated by little more than old brick huts. Their purpose, once essential to the state's economic life, came to be considered "almost like a criminal activity," an expert tells the Deseret News. In the late 1800s these huts were charcoal kilns, where forested trees were slowly heated in a week-long process that created charcoal packed with energy. Mostly it was used to smelt metals from mines, a process dating back 6,000 years or more. "Without metals you wouldn’t have had an industrial age; and without charcoal, you wouldn’t have metals," says a retired forest official who wants the kilns protected as historic sites. Yet the kilns had a downside: vast deforestation.
"A lot of times it was 'exploit the area and move on,'" says archaeologist Nate Thomas. Most kilns lasted just a few years before running out of wood, and "by the end it was almost considered like a criminal activity." Some still say the kilns were necessary for economic progress, but Thomas believes they carry a lesson: "Take what you can but never take everything if you want to keep a forest out there," he says. "Leave something for the future." It isn't just a historical issue, either: In Somalia, kiln-made charcoal not only leads to wide deforestation and desertification, it's a business that allows the militant group al-Shabab to siphon off tens of millions of dollars a year, the Economist reports. Why the big bucks? Water-pipe smokers in the Gulf prize the pricey, high-quality charcoal that only comes from Somalia. (Read more Utah stories.)