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Wildfire Ecology Part 4: Salvage Logging Hinders Natural Regeneration and Makes Burn Areas More Fire Prone

natural regeneration after a fireNow that the June 20, 2008 California lightning fires are nearly contained, talk has turned to salvage logging the burned areas.  Two years ago, an Oregon State University study has called into question the practice of salvage logging after a fire as a means of promoting forest rehabilitation and future fire safety, as well as the US government loses money on these salvage sales.  With Representative Wally Herger already calling for expedited NEPA procedures to allow unrestricted salvage logging in burn areas, we need to take a hard look at this practice.

Four years ago, a devastating fire spread across my property.  We were told by locals, foresters, loggers, and USDA conservationists that we needed to log the burned land.  We were told that the bugs would come and ruin the timber anyways and then kill the trees that had survived.  We were told that our property would be in greater fire risk danger if we did not remove dead timber, and we were encouraged to take out living trees that were predicted not to survive.  The loggers told us we would make about $60,000 logging 80 acres, but they didn’t tell us that sawmills automatically lower prices when a fire occurs and it would cost $40,000 to replant this same land.  We proceeded with the expedited timber harvest plan, only to pull the plug on the salvage operation after 12 acres.

Our property is now the perfect case study of what happens when a burned area is left alone or salvage logged. In the areas that were logged, invasive species of brush have grown enthusiastically, and we had to replant with nursery stock.  Natural regeneration was wiped out by the heavy logging equipment, and this part of our land is a mess.  In the areas that were left alone after the fire, the rate of natural regeneration of mixed conifer species was incredible and required no replanting and little removal of invasive weed species.  The living trees in the burn that were predicted to die by the foresters are still living today, and the bugs came and went. 

The unlogged, burned areas of Forest Service land near our home turned out to be our best defense against this year’s firestorms.  When the lightning fire hit the old burn where it had not been salvage logged, it stopped.  Firefighters were able to put in a direct fire line and did not perform any burnout operations along this fire boundary. The dire predictions of increased fire risk if logging did not occur were false. In fact, we were safer.

The frenzy to salvage log after this year’s fires is uncalled for and will create more dangerous fires in the future, as well as require manual replanting of the forests. Just observing the fire behavior all over Northern California confirms this: the fires burned hotter and were more destructive in areas that had been previously salvage logged and/or were plantations.

We only need to look at the massive 2002 Biscuit Fire in Oregon to learn that salvage logging is not the solution. According to the Environment News Service:

As of December 2006, the Forest Service had completed 12 salvage sales, the GAO said, resulting in harvests of 67 million board feet. The sales generated $8.8 million in receipts for the federal government, but cost $10.7 million, the report found.

Science Daily reports:

…fire severity was 16 to 61 percent higher in logged and planted areas, compared to those that had burned severely and were left alone in a fire 15 years earlier. The study was done in areas that had burned twice — once in the 1987 Silver Fire, and again in the massive 2002 Biscuit Fire, one of the largest forest fires in modern U.S. history…However, in the aftermath of a wildfire, removal of large dead trees followed by planting conifer seedlings does not appear to lessen the risk of severe fires in the first 10-20 years, Thompson said. This may be because the logging process leaves more available fuel on the forest floor; the dense, homogenous replantation of young trees provides a good setting for fire; or some combination of these factors over time…By contrast, natural regeneration of forests, he said, appears to result in at least slightly, and sometimes significantly less risk of severe future fires.

Salvage logging is not the solution to forest fire rehabilitation, and it only removes merchantable timber leaving small diameter fuels behind.  It makes forests more susceptible to future burns, and it negatively impacts natural regeneration. It doesn’t make economic or ecological sense. As Dan Donato, a graduate student in the Department of Forest Science at OSU, explained,  “Surprisingly, it appears that after even the most severe fires, the forest is naturally very resilient, more than it’s often given credit for.”  Let Mother Nature heal the forests on her own.

Image:  Natural Resources Canada

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5 comments
  1. trotsky

    OK, maybe salvage makes sense some places, maybe not. But the figures on the finances of the Biscuit fire are skewed, to say the least, by the fact that environmental groups fought the sales to delay them for years — dramatically driving up the cost even as it cut the value of the timber removed.

    If they were concerned about getting value for the money, maybe they wouldn’t litigate the sales for four years.

  2. cchiovitti

    Jennifer – maybe not paranoid at all since some government “conservationists” consider logging to be part of management.

  3. Marily

    Hi Jennifer~
    Your posting about Herger was forwarded to me, and i think you really wrote a great piece with important information. If you haven’t, you should send it to the Record Searchlight. I am an activist who lives near Shingletown (foothills of Lassen). I’d like to speak to you, but i don’t know how to get your contact info. Please contact me to hook up with all of us Shasta County activists, if you want.

  4. Jennifer Lance

    Yes cchiovitti, the whole concept that forests need managed is bizarre, but when humans live in and play in them, then I guess they do (humans just don’t always know the best way to manage them). I failed to mention in the post that many of us have been paranoid that the large burnouts used by firefighters were just an excuse to open up the forest for logging. I hope this is not true, but Herger’s plea makes me think this is more than paranoia.

  5. cchiovitti

    Yet another example of humans not usually knowing what’s best for the environment, or the safest. So many things that “experts” claim is ecologically good, is really just an attempt to thwart nature for the benefit of humankind.

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