By Jim Rogers
In my 50-year career as a professional forester working primarily for the forest industry — including my role for years as timber manager for a major local mill — I’ve had the opportunity to see first-hand both the opportunities and the hazards associated with salvage logging after fires. Seeing there’s growing interest in salvage logging after the Chetco Bar Fire, and that there’s pressure on the Forest Service to increase the cut beyond what their analysis supports, I’d like to share a little of what I’ve learned over the years.
First, salvage logging has nothing to do with fire safety. I never saw evidence that logging after a fire reduced the intensity of fires that follow. In fact, the most reliable source for information on this topic — an in-depth study by OSU foresters after the Biscuit Fire — found that fire danger is virtually the same or worse if burned areas are salvage logged.
People can argue that salvage logging is a good way to get logs to the mill, but no one should confuse that goal with creating conditions in our forests that are less prone to wildfire.
Even so, we all might support trucking those logs to the mill, but not quite so fast here. One thing we’ve learned by mistakes is that we shouldn’t be logging in ways that damage our streams, rivers, watersheds, and soils. To do so puts our water supplies, fisheries, wildlife and future forests at risk. All this can happen if we’re not careful where, when and how we log. And it just so happens that post-fire conditions on the ground are the worst possible situation for logging.
Fires scar the soil but it mostly remains intact as a relatively hard crust that resists erosion — compared to disturbed soil — and naturally re-germinates with seedlings whenever live trees are anywhere near.
But when logs are dragged across those burned areas and loaded, and when tracks are made by equipment driving back and forth, that layer of burned soil turns to black powder up to a foot deep that washes and blows away, creating severe problems in our streams and leaving underlying soil unprotected. Seedlings that otherwise had a good start are wiped out.
Helicopter logging only solves part of this problem, and it’s usually too expensive for the value of the burned trees that are being cut.
The fact that we have dead trees to cut isn’t the only thing to think about here. Like I said, post-fire logging can — and usually does — cause massive damage to soil and watersheds. For that reason the Forest Service has to be extremely selective in where they allow logging on a burned landscape.
I’ve had my own differences with the Forest Service over the years but that agency now has professionals who are far more competent and qualified than the rest of us to make the kind of judgments that are necessary to allow salvage logging that will not cause watershed and soil damage. They should be allowed to do their job without political influence getting in the way.
If political influence does get in the way, it will only delay the approval process for logging that needs to be carried out quickly in order to salvage burned trees while they’re still valuable.
Let me be clear about this: people who ask for too much will only be the cause of the delays that everyone seeks to avoid.
Finally, to take action that might make the next fire more manageable, forget salvage logging; instead, we should be thinning plantations that have given us a thicket of overcrowded trees following the last round of clearcutting. Unlike a charred forest with dead black snags and recovering by natural seeding, those plantation thickets burn like gasoline. Thinning them has nothing to do with salvage logging, but doing so can help to get us back to mature forest conditions, which are far less prone to super-heated fires than is the clearcut forest that we’ve created.
Jim Rogers lives
in Port Orford.