After the Rim Fire, the surprising role of salvage logging

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I grew up in California, and spent parts of every summer and most winters enjoying the forests of the Sierra Nevada. As last summer’s abnormally intense Rim Fire suggests the future of this pristine alpine playground is in jeopardy. Prevention and recovery are the issues of the day, and the U.S. Forest Service recognizes the necessity for action. Salvage logging, it turns out, could save the day.

The August 2013 fire was the third largest wildfire in California’s history. It burned about 150,000 acres of the Stanislaus National Forest and just over 100,000 acres of Yosemite National Park. Of these totals, nearly 40 percent of the acres burned at high severit meaning that essentially all of the vegetation was killed. My fear is that extreme weather conditions associated with climate change mean that high intensity wildfires like this will become the norm in the Sierra and other western states.

There is an urgent need for initiatives that prevent high intensity fires in forests that are not adapted for them, and we’ll need to get a whole lot better at post fire recovery.

The Forest Service recently proposed to conduct salvage logging – removal of dead trees - on about 30,000 of the 98,049 acres of high intensity burned area and remove hazard trees along 148 miles of high use road in the burn perimeter. While it may seem counterintuitive for a conservationist to do so, I support this effort. In the high intensity areas, the Rim Fire burned so hot that it not only killed every tree but the top inch or two of soil with critical soil microfauna, and seed stocks were also sterilized. Fire of this intensity has been relatively rare in the moist middle elevations on western slopes of the Sierra Nevada and the native forests are not adapted to bounce back from this type of fire.

“Letting nature heal itself” won’t work here

Many in the environmental community instinctively approach recovery after disasters like this with a strategy of "letting nature heal itself." Unfortunately, that approach is likely to result in a forest dominated by shrubs for many decades. Many Sierra shrubs sprout from stumps quickly after fires and form a dense cover which prevents conifer germination.

Restoration will require active shrub control to promote seedling survival of conifers, particularly pines. The Sierra has experienced a troubling decline in populations of pine species because their seeds do not germinate in the shade. Dense shrub cover and small thickets of fir trees further exacerbates the decline of these pine species, which are incredibly valuable for Sierra wildlife. In this rare case “nature” makes it much harder for tree populations in areas impacted by the Rim Fire to rebound.

Removing some component of dead trees will generate much needed revenue to stimulate restoration. The unfortunate reality is that the Congress is not likely to appropriate funds to restore the ecological vigor of the Rim Fire burned area. The Forest Service estimates that responsible merchantable dead tree removal will contribute as much as $15-20 million of net revenue that then can be used for recovery efforts including tree planting. Just preparing and replanting 30,000 acres will likely cost about $20 million.

Careful and professionally planned salvage logging will leave plenty of dead wood to support wildlife. But the Rim Fire has provided an overabundance of dead wood. Removing a responsible proportion of it and sending it to mills to create jobs and net revenue for restoration will not compromise ecological health.

And any logging that occurs must abide by high standards of soil and streamside protection and with a mind to maximizing ecological benefit. As once “infrequent” and extraordinarily intense fires become increasingly common, it’s imperative that we evaluate prevention and recovery measures objectively. It may be the only way to safeguard irreplaceable treasures like the Sierra for future generations.

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Eric Holst

Eric Holst

Eric is senior director of EDF's Working Lands program, and an expert on developing strategies for environmental management on working forests, farms and ranches.

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Comments

The most pressing needs are on the wood products industry and economic development agencies to cultivate the markets for small and medium diameter timber. With good forest policy and practices to begin with, more forest management will create more sustainable jobs than the current trend of managing wildfires. With adequate demand in the marketplace, the log trucks will roll with the support of both the hippies and the industrialists.

Eric, we respect the EDC and all the work it does to protect the natural environment. However, regarding the opinion you've expressed here, the EDC is seriously misguided. We are surprised the EDC appears to have accepted the USFS's claims without checking the science.

It isn't the instinctual response by "environmental community" that you should be focusing on, but rather the incredible volume of scientific research that has made it clear that salvage logging can have a devastating impact on fragile post-fire environments. To quote three of the country's top fire ecologists, David Lindenmayer, Phil Burton, and Jerry Franklin,

"The notion that salvage logging assists the ecological recovery of naturally disturbed forests is fundamentally incorrect. Hence justifications for salvage logging based on contributions to ecological recovery have little merit. We know of few circumstances where salvage logging has been demonstrated to directly contribute to recovery of ecological processes or biodiversity."

This is not an instinctual statement from environmentalists, but conclusions based on decades of research.

Eric, we don't need to go in and conduct "active shrub control to promote seedling survival of conifers." This means massive amounts of herbicide like what was used after the 1987 Stanislaus-Complex Fire in the same area. The Sierra has not "experienced a troubling decline in populations of pine species." We have no idea where you have obtained that data. The Rim Fire did not "sterilize" massive amounts of soil. Within the next year, there will be an explosion of life growing from the so-called sterilized soils. These perspective are right out of the forest industry mindset that also continues to claim that old growth forests are decadent, supporting minimal species diversity and therefore need to be logged.

The science does not support these broad generalizations. PLEASE examine the research and reconsider this opinion piece.

We urge you to visit our webpage on the Rim Fire and the negative impact the USFS's project will have. You can download the relevant papers as well as comment letters from those scientists who have an intimate knowledge of the Sierran ecosystem.

Additional information can be found here refuting the notion that large, "high-intensity" forest fires are unnatural:
http://www.californiachaparral.org/cforestfires.html

Sincerely,
Richard W. Halsey
Director
California Chaparral Institute

One cannot get more environmentally irresponsible than to suggest that natural succession of shrubs to trees is a bad thing, or to suggest that salvage logging is a good thing for all the fire-dependent plant and animal species that require those severe fire events for their existence on this earth! Every bit of ecological research ever conducted on the effects of salvage logging reveals overwhelmingly negative effects. Please look at these videos to get an ecological perspective on fire:

Here's an award-winning video by Conservation Media http://vimeo.com/groups/future/videos/8627070

Here's an informative series of photos capturing the ecological magic within severely burned forests https://vimeo.com/75533376 or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rXvP2r9W9c

Here is a presentation of the science behind the benefits of severe fire from a PBS television series that ran some 15 years ago http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTl-naywNyY&list=PL7F70F134E853F520&index=15

Here's another new video by the Wild Nature Institute http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BmTq8vGAVo&feature=youtu.be

Here is the most recent USFS production showing how essential severe fires are to conifer forest systems
http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r5/news-events/audiovisual/?cid=stelprdb54...

So many acronyms! I referred to you folks in my comment as EDC rather than EDF. Apologies.

Your "pristine alpine playground" is in jeopardy because of the poorly informed and highly damaging archaic salvage logging practices that you recommend, not fire.
Additionally, while you are correct in stating that approximately 40% (it's actually 38.1% if you did the math) of the Rim Fire area experienced "high" burn intensity on vegetation (http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/map/3726/0/) what is far more important is soil burn severity, where only a very small portion of the burn area experienced "high" severity (http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/map/3726/4/). If you go into an area with bulldozers and other logging equipment it destabilizes the soil, damages the seeds and organisms that survived in the soil and will contribute to a much slower recovery process. As the other commentators said, this is a highly misguided and poorly informed article that is not scientifically sound.

My post has generated vigorous debate both online and in my inbox. The first step toward solving the pressing problems facing America’s managed ecosystems is meaningful dialogue, so I appreciate all the constructive comments.

I’ve made one important edit to my post. It originally stated the following, “Aside from spurring tree growth, removing some dead trees can also generate much needed revenue to stimulate restoration.”

I’ve changed this to, “Removing some component of dead trees will generate much needed revenue to stimulate restoration.” Salvage logging does not stimulate tree growth. In fact, most studies suggest that salvage logging provides no direct ecological benefits and in many forest ecosystems such logging, particularly the most irresponsible forms, can be ecologically destructive.

With that said, I’d like to clarify my original point -- Rim Fire restoration will require a substantial financial investment and we are in the unfortunate federal budget situation where the USFS has limited access to recovery funds. The receipts from salvage logging could be used as a revenue source to promote active restoration of sites that, if left alone, would take many years to recover.

That’s not to say that untreated areas will lack ecological value. Quite to the contrary, a blend of shrubs, herbs and dead wood create a rich habitat for many species in post-fire early successional forest ecosystems that follow high severity burns. The key management challenge will be to design a mosaic of sites across the burned areas including some sites where natural regeneration occurs and others where restoration of conifers is prioritized in order to more rapidly bring back forests with old growth characteristics. The USFS has the responsibility to carefully plan this future forest mosaic and the important responsibility to ensure that any salvage logging operations are carefully performed to minimize soil damage.

Fortunately these plans are subject to public review and watchdogs including myself will be keeping an eye on logging operations.

Thanks for all the comments and I look forward to a continued conversation.

One thing we can be sure of regarding the Rim Fire, is that in twenty years we will be able to drive and walk through a wide variety of post-fire vegetation examples.

If you drive down the road another 20 miles into Yosemite Park, you can see what happened after the 1990 Foresta fire where Park policy lets nature takes its course. What you will see is great vistas, some shrubs and grasses, and very few new trees. It is an interesting foreshadowing of a probable outcome for most of the Rim Fire if no salvage logging followed by forest restoration is done.

There are private inholdings, National forest lands that could operationally be restored with young trees, National forest lands that operationally will probably be left to recover on their own, and National Park lands that had a more patchy forest before the fire and had a more patchy burn impact this time around. What would be great if we could learn by doing a range of treatments including salvage logging, reforestation with different densities of seedlings, prescribed fire, active invasive plant control, passive invasive plant control, and of course a lot just letting nature takes its course. We can be guaranteed that the final choice will be applied to a lot of acres due to budgetary issues. What we really need, therefore is a commitment to learn from the other experiments.

It is interesting to see how many comments Eric’s post attracted from authors who are vehement that absolutely nothing except ‘let nature takes its course’ on National Forest lands. Since we have 100,000 acres of National Park land for that experiment, it would be more interesting to apply some other options on the National Forest lands. In the climate change debate, we continue to witness the rapid expansion of vocal people so sure of their own story that they refuse to even consider the possibility that it is worth learning more about the changing earth. Hopefully, this fate will not befall the response to the Rim Fire.

Thank you Mr. Holst, for acknowledging the benefits of fire prevention and recovery activities in devastated Sierra Nevada forests. The lack of active management, combined with decades of fire suppression, have created unnatural conditions in federal forests. This is a man-made disaster, and there is growing consensus that humans have a role to play in helping these forests recover.

We have seen the benefits of recovery activities on many private and state-managed lands. Timely salvage harvesting, replanting, and vegetation control have helped these forests recover their health and productivity more quickly, while providing habitat for wildlife. Often we see these restored forests next to federal lands, which have been left alone to be dominated by brush species. There are also too many snags that serve as fuel for the next catastrophic fire.

Finally, I want to thank Mr. Holst for briefly recognizing the economic benefits of post-fire recovery efforts, which help provide good-paying jobs for our rural communities. Removing a responsible portion of burnt timber does in fact help our communities, while generating more resources for management activities that can help contain catastrophic events in the future.

Nick, you make a good point that logging burnt timber does provide economic benefit to local communities. That needs to be the rationale for salvage logging, rather than some of the other points you make.

To be clear, much of the area burned in the Stanislaus National Forest was indeed under very active management. There were massive tracts of overly dense tree farms that had been support by the aerial spraying of tons of herbicides. In addition, there were a couple dozen large clear cuts that the Rim Fire burned through. A good case can be made that it was in fact active management that contributed to a significant amount of the Rim Fire's behavior, equal too or more than anything past fire suppression may have caused.

As with many issues that are often tied to strongly held beliefs, the question of when and where to do salvage logging can be controversial. In the case of the Rim Fire, many who hold strident positions base their views on generic situations, rather than their familiarity with the uniquely specific situation of the Rim Fire itself.

As a firefighter and fuels specialist for 13 years with the Forest Service, I have personal experience fighting hundreds of fires and doing post-fire recovery treatments in massive wildfires. Almost all major wildfires in California and the Sierra Nevada in particular have burned with a large percentage of the fire area being low to medium fire intensity. That is NOT the case with the Rim Fire.

Chad Hanson has accurately chided me for using the word "devastation" when referring to a large block of at least 35,000 acres of conifer forest in the core area of the Rim Fire where firestorm conditions resulted in not a single green tree surviving across a large belt of incinerated acreage. I accept that looking at the heavily roasted landscape can be judged as either beneficial for certain species such as the black-backed woodpecker or it can be seen as devastation for the CA spotted owl, goshawk, pileated woodpecker, fisher, marten, and more than 200 wildlife species that do NOT benefit from having all mature trees killed. I also accept that in many areas of the Sierra Nevada, Chad, Justin, and others who advocate for the BBWP are certainly correct that there may be deficient levels of recently burned conifer forest habitat. I have been trying to remember to be more selective as to how to describe the intensely burned landscape.

In the case of the Rim Fire area, however, there was no shortage of burned acres or even the slightest shortage or early-seral vegetation across vast areas. in the three decades prior to the Rim Fire there was the 147,000-acre Complex Fire of 1987, the Rogge Fire, the Ackerson Fire, the Pilot Fire, the Early Fire, and numerous other large wildfires that created in each of the three decades significant amounts of high-mortality conifer forest burned acres. Out of the entire Sierra Nevada this general Rim Fire southern Stanislaus National Forest area had one of the highest levels of good habitat for species that benefit from recent fires.

Even just looking at the Rim Fire without even considering other burns, the Rim Fire covered 402 square miles with 167,000+ acres of moderate (75% of trees killed) to high (all trees killed) burn intensity. Just within Yosemite Park there are well over 40,000 acres of conifer forest that burned hot and that will provide new fresh burned habitat for the BBWP and other burn dependent species. In addition, even if all proposed salvage logging gets approved and takes place on national forest land (and local FS staff assure me that less salvage logging is more likely), there would still be many tens of thousands of acres of hot burned conifer forest on the national forest that will not be salvage logged. Combined with all the burned habitat in Yosemite as well, incredibly high amounts of burned habitat are not even being discussed for having any salvage logging.

As with many science-based questions, there is no "right" solution that if the BBWP gains 75,000 acres of new "no salvage logging" freshly burned conifer forest, that is "not enough." or that instead, the BBWP needs 85,000 acres or 89,000 acres or 92,000 acres to magically be at the "right" acreage. But under every possible scenario, the BBWP and other species that benefit from high intensity fires will gain at least 70,000-90,000 acres of conifer forest that suddenly shifts from living green forest to now being all or nearly all dead trees. It is illogical to argue that every acre should be exempt from any salvage tree removal.

As a fuels specialist and firefighter, I see that the issue of salvage logging in the national forest portion of the Rim Fire is a complex question that must also consider what the recovering forest will look like if 50,000-60,000+ acres of national forest land with conifers ends up having zero salvage logging done (as some advocate). Millions of dead trees falling across each other in a jack-straw fashion is both reasonable and potentially acceptable from a fuels management perspective if it is patchy, clumped, or not widespread across countless square miles. But leaving every dead tree to fall over and become fuel across 60,000 acres of conifer forest land on the Stanislaus Forest will create dangerous levels of fuel that will simply ensure that in future wildfires, the recovering forest once again will likely burn so intensely that most or all conifer trees are killed.

As with many complex issues, our non-profit center believes that a "solution" for the Rim Fire is to seek balance --- to leave vast areas of conifer forest unlogged (as will occur in Yosemite Park and on tens of thousands of acres in the Stanislaus Forest). It would involve removing a significant amount of dead trees (while leaving some dead trees on every single treated acre) to reduce fuel loading. It will involve being strategic about where to replant with conifer trees in areas where zero cones and seeds survived so that there is no natural way a conifer forest to recover without reforestation help. And it will involve leaving tens of thousands of acres to simply shift to non-conifer forest brush land and slowly recovering oaks by doing nothing... leaving those tens of thousands of acres completely untouched.

Because I have spent many days out in Rim Fire in the highly incinerated hot core area of perhaps 40-50 square miles of conifer forest that is currently blackened, with no surviving green trees, I believe that our society has a responsibility to help return much of that area to conifer forest habitat for species that desperately need suitable habitat. CA spotted owls, goshawks, pileated woodpeckers, fishers, martens, and many other species have been identified by the environmental community for two decades as key reasons not to log old growth stands, not to clearcut, not to convert forests to tree plantations, and to instead protect or manage to create habitat diversity in a fine scale mosaic pattern. It would be disingenuous for the conservation community to suddenly say "it's essential for the Forest Service to manage forests to provide adequate habitat for these key species, but we don't want the FS to reforest after those precious habitat acres get incinerated by wildfire." Either there is value in having conifer forest protected where it has high benefit for certain species, or there isn't. Because our center has done furbearer surveys for fisher, marten, the Sierra Nevada red fox, and other species for two decades, we believe that maintaining conifer forest for those species is a desirable goal.

Removing excess levels of dead trees iin some areas to be reforested can be one action that can reduce future fuels and help improve the chance of survival for a young, beginning forest.

So the question of Rim Fire treatments doesn't need to be a black vs white outcome. By doing some actions in some areas and not doing actions in other areas, there can be a comparison that can help inform future management actions. Our Center's staff was just sharing the view again today amongst ourselves that there are so many dead trees out in the Rim Fire stretching across such a gigantic landscape area, THERE ARE PLENTY OF DEAD TREES FOR EVERY DEMAND. It would be ideal if those with strong interests on all sides can focus on where key areas can best benefit their interests, and then accept that other areas in the 402 square miles of the Rim Fire burn area may be appropriate to manage for other uses that produce other benefits. There really is a lot of opportunity for multiple beneficial outcomes.

John Buckley, executive director
Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center
Twain Harte, CA

John, we've discussed these issues before so I suspect we will just have to respectfully disagree.

Your experience is important, but your frequent reference to needing a "balanced" approach (salvage log a little here, a little there) is fine if you want to justify such a thing politically. But you should be familiar enough with the literature to know the idea that salvage logging is an ecological restoration tool has no scientific merit. It's about money and silviculture.

When we know something is ecologically damaging, but to do it anyway to attain the impression of some kind of "balance" is politics, not science. Once the USFS and other promoters of salvage logging come around to acknowledging this, then we can have a productive conversation.

Can you provide references that clearly indicate that leaving dead trees in a burned forest will "ensure that in future wildfires, the recovering forest once again will likely burn so intensely that most or all conifer trees are killed." From the data we've have seen, going into a burned forest to extract the economic value of burned timber poses the greatest risk.

Eric, when you say things like “removing some dead trees can also generate much needed revenue to stimulate restoration,” and “Rim Fire restoration will require a substantial financial investment,” you are missing the point that there is value in natural forest succession and all stages and natural durations of each stage! Only those who see a forest only for the trees will say that we need to “stimulate” restoration. Natural forest succession does not require a financial investment! It will be a forest again someday…just look anywhere on earth where severe fire has burned. You may have to wait longer than you want to, but that's managing for the maintenance of all parts of a disturbance-based natural system!

Meanwhile, there are plenty of places in green-tree forests to get timber if economic stimulus is one's argument. Thus, there is no justification for post-fire salvage logging.

Once one understands how sensitive the succession process is to conditions on the ground, it is not at all "...illogical to argue that every acre should be exempt from any salvage tree removal," as Buckley claims. There are plenty of live trees to harvest elsewhere...messing with ecologically sensitive burned areas by treating cutting and planting as if our public lands are nothing but tree farms is not the way to go!

This perspective takes time to fully appreciate...it has taken me nearly 25 years to finally "get it," but once we start listening to the plants and animals that depend on severe fire, where we go for our wood becomes clear, and burned forests are not appropriate places for that kind of activity.

Eric, thank you for your comments and also everybody else that has weighed in.
Sometimes I think we like to use "science" to buttress the world view we hold. I know I do!
My experience as a forester is that science has its limits. There are questions of values and subjectivities just as exponential as in any graphed equation.
I wrote a series of articles published by the Sacramento Bee earlier in this century, which are posted on my website forestkeeper.com. I challenge anyone to go up to the Megram/Big Bar Complex today and tell me that all those brush fields are in the public interest.
There is plenty of science to tell us never to cut another tree, or to cut all the trees and grow as much wood fiber as possible. I appreciate the views expressed that with the Rim Fire there is an opportunity for the Forest Service to do a number of different things, including removing dead trees and ensuring that selected sites do not go to brush.
If you let nature take its course, you get what you get. Sometimes that can be fantastic, sometimes not so great.
If you choose to utilize the tools of forest management, you have a much greater probability of achieving desired outcomes. Forestry, which is both an art and an applied science, wouldn't exist if society felt that exercising such human discretion on the landscape was never warranted. Obviously there is a question of trust, but my sense is that the public increasingly recognizes the folly of always letting nature take its course, which is a serious management decision in and of itself.
Respectfully, I think that some of the revulsion over salvage logging is based not so much on science, but upon a simple revulsion against logging, period. Timber harvest is viewed as unsustainable, almost by definition. I disagree with this, but acknowledge its prevalence and legitimacy in our democratic system, especially when we are dealing with public lands such as national forests.
Finally, it's important to reiterate that national forest lands, such as the Stanislaus, are not national parks, such as Yosemite. I recognize that some would prefer that national forests be managed with the same set of objectives as national parks, but many of us who deeply care for the land do not agree with this perspective.

William, science can be used in many ways. It can be manipulated and data can be ignored. But let's be really clear, the science says one thing about entering burned forests to drag out burned trees:

"The notion that salvage logging assists the ecological recovery of naturally disturbed forests is fundamentally incorrect."
-Lindenmayer, D.B., P.J. Burton, and J.F. Franklin. 2008. Salvage Logging and its Ecological Consequences. Island Press

You can ignore the science to buttress the forester world view that sees forests as commodities in need of human management. You can demonize native shrublands in the post-fire successional process because you value trees over other life forms. And you can make claims to know how the public views "letting nature take its course." These choices reflect your own values and subjectivity.

However, you are seriously misunderstanding science if you think it is "limited" because it doesn't incorporate such values and subjectivity. The essence of science is that it strives to avoid such biases. Implying that science has limits because it fails to consider subjective judgments is something we've heard countless times in meetings and settlement conferences from land managers and political leaders who do not like what the science is saying.