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Does Post-Fire Salvage Logging Help or Hurt?

Issue of Logging After Fires Creates Polarized Camps Divided Over Benefits, Drawbacks

By Matthew Harrison
Date Posted: 8/1/2006


      Is post-fire salvage logging good for the environment? That question has been tossed around by forestry scientists, lawmakers, timber companies and preservationists for several years. The post-fire logging issue has spawned polarized camps that either advocate logging or argue that such logging is harmful.

        Recent legislation in Congress combined with a new study from Oregon State University is refueling the debate. The study was conducted in the area damaged by the Biscuit Fire in the Rogue-River-Siskiyou National Forest of southwest Oregon in 2002. It was led by Daniel Donato, a forest science graduate student at the university.

        Currently published online in Science Express while awaiting publication in the journal Science, the study contests previous hypotheses that salvage logging can improve forest regeneration, and Donato denounces current methods of post-fire salvage logging.

        “Our data show that post-fire logging, by removing naturally seeded conifers and increasing surface fuel loads, can be counter-productive to goals of forest regeneration and fuel reduction,” Donato reported. “In addition, forest regeneration is not necessarily in crisis across all burned landscapes.”

        The natural conifer regeneration on the study sites was 767 seedlings per hectare; 80% of the seedlings were Douglas firs. Logging was found to reduce regeneration by 71%, requiring planting of seedlings to ensure restoration of seedling levels that otherwise would have occurred naturally.

        Logging might actually increase the risk of catalyzing fires in the future, the study also suggested. The highly compacted wood waste discarded on the forest floor during logging operations may easily ignite later.

        “Surprisingly, it appears that even after the most severe fires, the forest is naturally very resilient, more than it’s often given credit for,” Donato said in a university news release. “And if another of our goals is to reduce the risk of early re-burn, the best strategy may be to leave dead trees standing. In the absence of post-fire logging, we would expect the fuels to fall to the ground over some protracted period, as opposed to the single pulse of high fire risk we saw after logging alone.”

        Although Donato’s report appears to advocate reductions in post-wildfire logging, some critics are skeptical of the study. The critics include Oregon State faculty who tried to block publication of the report.

        One such opponent, John Sessions, censured the work based on the short research timetable. Donato’s study was completed within a three year span following the 2002 fire.

        “The real test for regeneration is survival to mature tree size,” said Sessions in a statement. “Thousands of seedlings per hectare or more may exist following a good seed year and adequate spring moisture. Seedling counts of first year, second or third germinates is recognized as a weak test for conifer survival in southwest Oregon. Few will survive the first five years given the shrub and hardwood competition.”

        However, pundits have been quick to attack Sessions and OSU’s Department of Forest Science. An editorial in the Oregonian newspaper chided OSU faculty for denigrating the study.

        “The faculty group that objected to the study’s publication works in a college that receives 10 percent of its funding directly from the taxation of logging,” the newspaper said. “This means that it is
impossible for the faculty to be neutral, in the scientific sense, when they argue in favor of logging, no matter how they go about it.”

        Sessions recommended post-fire logging in a Biscuit Fire management proposal written with other OSU faculty. “Timber salvage of fire-killed timber will speed forest recovery through removal of hazardous trees that impede aerial forest maintenance operations, reduce probability of wildfire, and make future fires more controllable through removal of hazard trees and reduction of large log fuels,” they wrote. Salvaging dead timber would reduce the intensity of future fires while easing fire suppression, according to Sessions.

        However, other OSU faculty have recommended strict regulations concerning post-fire logging. Such a report, titled ‘Wildfire and Salvage Logging,’ was published as an inter-collegiate collaboration led by Dr. Robert Beschta of OSU.

        “With respect to the need for management treatments after fires, there is generally no need for urgency, nor is there a universal, ecologically-based need to act…making fire prevention a high priority management goal is a commitment to continuous fire suppression and a prescription for long term addiction,” says the collaborative report.

        If one thing is certain, it is that OSU’s faculty are divided on the issue.

        Other researchers and foresters contend that Donato’s study was too vague for earnest consideration. Dr. Thomas Bon­nicksen, professor emeritus at Texas A&M, went so far as to call the study “silly science.” He cited an article by Mike Dubrasich, a forester, as evidence of their mutual dissatisfaction with the study.

        The authors of the Donato study reported a “medium stocking density” of 767 seedlings per hectare (2.47 acres) before salvage logging and 224 seedlings per hectare afterwards, Dubrasich noted. “It is possible that all 767 seedlings were in an area the size of a pool table, and the rest of the hectare was bare,” he wrote. “The authors give no indication one way or the other.”

        The authors seem to have confused “stocking density,” a parameter that does not exist, with “stocking” and “density,” which are two separate measurements in forestry, Dubrasich observed.

        He found fault with another aspect of the report. “The seedlings the authors counted were red stems,” Dubrasich wrote. “A red stem is a baby Douglas fir seedling. A Douglas fir seedling may remain in the red stem phase for one to perhaps 10 years before it (a) starts to grow or (b) dies. Most die. A few take off and grow. There is no way to know which red stem will do what.”

        Dubrasich also accused the study authors of withholding information concerning the implications of competing vegetation. “The Biscuit Burn is a sea of sprouting brush, a wall-to-wall carpet of up and coming tan oak, ceanothus, manzanita, fireweed, thistles, grasses, and more… These pyrophytic plants are like botanical gasoline, redolent with resins, oils, creosotes, and other flashy hydrocarbons,” Durbrasich noted. Without proper forest management, the competing, brushy vegetation is a veritable fuse lying in wait to ignite yet another catastrophic blaze.

        Measuring the devastation of forest fires adds yet another questionable variable to the debate. As academics struggle to agree on post-fire management tactics, the issue of understanding fire patterns and gauging tree mortality can stymie post-fire salvage logging.

        While over 450,000 acres were affected by the Biscuit Fire, not all 450,000 acres burned to the ground. Furthermore, naturally occurring forest fires are not uniformly severe. Some areas may have lost a majority of tress while neighboring tracts may have lost only a handful of trees. Areas that suffer varying levels of damage have differing characteristics of natural regeneration. The U.S. Forest Service reported that only 16% of the Biscuit Fire burned at high intensity while 64% burned at much lower intensity, and 20% was completely unburned.

        “Fires reset temporal patterns and processes that, if allowed to proceed undisturbed by additional human impacts, provide dynamic and biologically critical contributions to ecosystems over long time frames,” Beschta wrote in Wildfire and Salvage Logging.’ That ‘patchiness’ of fire is a desirable characteristic, and many species depend on the environmental influences that fires create.”

        Accurately assessing tree mortality of these patchy, mosaic burn patterns is difficult.   According to Rolf Skar, director of the Siskiyou Project, a good indicator of tree mortality is whether or not a conifer still has green needles.

        “If we want to move forward, we have to establish some trust, and having clear mortality guidelines would be the best idea. Especially a year or two years afterwards, if it’s still got green needles, I think it’s probably a good idea to say that’s not a dead tree.”

        As the academic debate slowly gnaws away at the credence of post-fire logging, politicians are faced with another dilemma: saving the environment or catalyzing private enterprise.

        Legislation has evolved that is favored by environmentalists. But as academics struggle to determine whether or not salvage logging impedes environmental progress, politicians continually proposed new legislation to make it easier for companies to log on federal land. While older bills, such as the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) evoke notions of environmentally sound legislation, the ambiguity of their wording leaves room for loose, pro-industry interpretations.

        Two of the six main points of NEPA maintain that policy should simultaneously “attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation” and “enhance the quality of renewable resources and approach the maximum attainable recycling of depletable resources.” Vague statements like these allow legislators to shift responsibility to the jurisprudence of courts while convincing constituents that Congress has passed bills to protect the environment. Even though the NFMA explicitly lifts limitations on timber removal where salvage logging is deemed necessary or in areas “substantially damaged by fire,” the reality is that legislators have bungled environmental issues to a point where both environmental and economic progress is stifled in bureaucracy and the courts.

        As noted earlier, it is almost impossible for foresters, scholars, and government officials to agree on abstract terms like “devastation.” The use of Environmental Impact Statements (EIS), as mandated by the NEPA, are supposed to reduce confusion on such issues by providing a symposium-like arena for specialists to share expertise as well as for the public to comment on behalf of collective community interests.

        The EIS sounds like a wonderful, pragmatic solution to meeting the needs of environmentalists, loggers, and everyone who has an interest in national forests. It has a price, though: time and public money. In the case of the Biscuit Fire, it meant over two years of deliberations and taxpayer expenditures while fire-damaged timber deteriorated instead of being salvaged by loggers.

        The U.S. Forest Service cobbled together a draft EIS with the help of renowned forestry specialists that outlined precautionary forest management tactics that would legitimize logging of over 1 billion board feet of old-growth reserve trees.  The majority of the 23,000 public comments about the draft EIS criticized the plan, and the number of board feet to be harvested was reduced to 372 million. Meanwhile, loggers filed litigation to counteract the lengthy EIS process so they could begin cutting as soon as possible.

        To no avail, environmentalists quickly filed lawsuits of their own to block the proposed salvage logging. Additional appeals that questioned the methodology of the Biscuit Fire EIS review process also failed — although they succeeded in delaying salvage logging.

        Hence, lawyers and judges decide the fate of these trees more so than the experts who study and manage forests, the loggers who harvest them, and the companies that use the resource.

        While timber values decline as dead and dying trees await their fate on the bottom of the forest floor, the government and the timber companies lose money. ‘The Facts and Myths of Post-Fire Management: A Case Study on the Biscuit Fire, Southwest Oregon,’ a report issued by scientists and Forest Service personnel, claims the Forest Service alone lost over $14 million in sale preparation and administrative costs after logging only the first 3,800 acres of a 31,000-acre tract.

        Robert Wolf, the late forest policy analyst with the Congressional Research Service, estimated that average bid prices for the delayed sale were reduced to only $74.58 per mbf, down from the anticipated price of $250 per mbf.

        The study sided with Donato’s research, confirming that post-fire logging in the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest inhibited the return of old-growth forest conditions. Also, post-fire logging increased forest floor fuels by removing the trunks, which are the least flammable part of the tree, but leaving flammable slash on the ground.

        Furthermore, the study found that post        -fire logging was not a restorative action. While also stunting seedlings, it indelibly damaged the regeneration process by degrading soils and triggering erosions, even in areas were helicopter logging took place. The study also disagreed with federal estimates of accessible timber volumes and planning delays that resulted in a missed logging season.

        The Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) of 2003 was passed to protect rural communities from catastrophic wildfires. It allows federal agencies to bypass the EIS and NEPA procedure in cases of reducing fuel loads on national forest lands within 1.5 miles of a community. The government can sell timber in these cases, skipping the environmental assessment processes where it deems it necessary to protect these communities from wildfire threat.

        Loggers and timber companies bidding on federal timber may face legal battles and years of wading through the courts and bureaucratic procedures as merchantable timber decays.

        East Fork Lumber, a small company in Myrtle Point, Ore., is harvesting a 6 million board foot sale. However, it will be lucky to get 4.5 million board feet.

        “What we really lost were all the small trees,” said Bob Sproul, owner of East Fork. Luckily for his company, the sale tracts contain plenty of old-growth Douglas fir — “some of the most valuable trees in the world,” he noted.

        The political maneuvering involved in the study of post-fire logging strategies has undermined the science that legislation so vehemently praises. Currently, federal lawmakers are considering the Walden Bill, formally known as the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act. The act conceivably would reduce the EIS window to only 120 days, which is economically desirable both for the government and the companies that bid on the timber.

        “A year after a fire in a pine forest, a tree will retain 60 to 70 percent of its value, but after the second year, it falls between 30 and 40 percent,” John Shelk, president of Prineville-based Ochoco Lumber Company, said in support of the bill. “The environmental community has no sense of proportion. They want to make sales so uneconomical so that no harvesting is done on national forests, and the best way to do that is stall these sales as long as possible and reduce the value significantly.”

        “The negative impacts of post-fire logging on natural regeneration have been reported in many past studies,” Dr. Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington told a Congressional field hearing in February. In addition, rapid natural regeneration does not always equate with “rapid re­-est­ab­lishment of a dense forest of a commercially important tree species,” he observed.

        “From an ecological perspective, it is better to harvest living trees from an intact forest than to remove dead trees from an intensely burned site,” Franklin said.

        One of the biggest problems posed by post-fire logging mentioned in Donato’s study is the issue of slash removal.

        “Slash is an interesting topic,” said Jim Peterson, editor and publisher of Evergreen magazine, which supports the forest products industry. “You can argue it round or you can argue it square.”

        “We know intuitively that if you leave a lot of slash out in the woods, you’ve left a fire hazard,” Peterson added. “If you leave too little slash in the woods, you’ve created the opposite problem. You’ve lost nutrients, you’ve lost the ability to hold soil in place to provide shade, to provide cover. It’s a real mixed bag. I think what we have to do is let science tell us what to do on the slash questions. I think it’s just the application of the right technique.”

        Slash removal is an issue that has circulated throughout the forestry community for decades, but it has become rather taboo. Policymakers skirt the issue, hoping it will resolve itself, but no one claims responsibility for it. If legislation like the 2003 HFRA and the prospective Walden Bill really are going to reduce the threat of future wildfire, then the most volatile and abundant fuel source on the forest floor needs to be addressed.

        Provisions in the Walden bill will group ‘catastrophic events’ together in a large, multi-faceted category that will allow forests damaged by wildfires to be logged in the same manner as forests damaged by hurricanes. It doesn’t take a PhD to recognize that natural disaster management is relative to specific contexts. Perhaps legislation should be mindful of the innate differences in ecosystems while also addressing the economic interests of salvage loggers.

        The whole matter rests in the hands of five different camps: loggers and mills, scholars, environmentalists, politicians, and judges. Each camp has their bias and agenda, and even then, some parties within these camps stand diametrically opposed on how to interpret data and the law. Instead of drawing lines in the dirt, the parties should focus on complementary legislature that promotes both environmental restoration and expedient economic subsistence strategies.

        We still live in a capitalist economy. Far-reaching, socially-minded and prohibitive legislation might just put loggers in welfare lines.

        “It’s pretty amazing how much economy we’re creating with these dead trees,” said Sproul of the Biscuit fire salvage logging. “We supply wood to a timber frame company back East, and they have 80 employees.” That’s over 100 families fed by an honest industry, and we’re not even counting fabricators, sales associates, and proprietors that use these harvests to forge their livelihoods.

        Let us not forget that rural grassroots economics still provides the modest backbone for our modernized, idealized, and urbanized Western culture.


 






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