After the Rim Fire, the surprising role of salvage logging

Eric Holst

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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