Does the Rim Fire leave room for compromise on salvage logging?


Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., might have known that his proposal to salvage burned timber from Yosemite’s Rim Fire would not go over smoothly. Not only is he trying to auction off logging contracts in a national park while his own party’s antics have kept that park closed to citizens, he wants to sidestep the whole “public process” thing to prevent environmentalists from getting in the way. Even when public input is allowed and citizens aren’t being arrested for setting foot in national parks, the mere suggestion of salvage logging is enough to draw controversy.

The idea itself is simple: In the aftermath of a forest fire, the U.S. Forest Service sometimes contracts private companies to haul out dead or damaged timber, removing fuel that could feed future fires and gleaning some money from an otherwise grim situation. But opponents say the process inhibits the forests’ natural ability to heal, punching new roads into already damaged land, sending heavy machinery trundling over sensitive soil and removing the dead snags that benefit wildlife.

The most recent high-profile controversy was Oregon’s 2002 Biscuit Fire. Environmental opposition there delayed salvage logging for years, and by the time the wood finally made it out of the forest, only a fifth was sold, in part because the logs were already rotting.

McClintock wants to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to the 1 billion board feet left by Yosemite’s Rim Fire. To try to expedite salvage, he’s introduced a bill to commercially log 257,000 acres of Yosemite National Park and Stanislaus National Forest without the public notice and environmental review that applies to most salvage timber sales on federal lands. McClintock’s bill, which has 11 co-sponsors and is now in committee, would also exempt the entire process from lawsuits.


Cleaning up Highway 120 after the Rim Fire.

“If any good can come of this tragedy, it would be the timely salvage of fire-killed timber that could provide employment to local mills and desperately needed economic activity to mountain communities,” McClintock said in a press statement. “But this can’t happen if salvage is indefinitely delayed by bureaucratic processes or the usual litigation filed by extremist environmental groups."

The bill seems unlikely to pass the Senate. But as expected, salvage logging opponents like The Wilderness Society are nonetheless outraged, arguing that salvage logging should not be allowed anywhere near the Rim Fire.  A spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity called the practice “barbaric,” while Chad Hanson, a forest and fire ecologist with the John Muir Project, opined in the Los Angeles Times that protecting burned areas is “important to the rejuvenation of the area's ecology” and any logging would “inflict significant damage and negate the many ecological benefits that fire brings.”

John Buckley, director for the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center and a 13-year veteran of wildland fire crews, says such groups are missing the point. Buckley doesn’t support indiscriminate logging like McClintock’s bill would allow. But nor does he believe that the entire 257,000 acres scarred by the Rim Fire should be off-limits. A one-size-fits-all solution for a fire this big doesn’t make sense.

“There’s ability to find middle ground,” Buckley says. Swaths of moderately scorched forest in the park – forest that can reseed naturally and provide habitat for animals like the black-backed woodpecker – could be left untouched, satisfying environmentalists, while limited logging (followed by reseeding) could be permitted in parts of the Stanislaus forest that burned more intensely and have lost some of their ability to reseed. Many such areas are already laced with roads and have been previously logged anyway.

Some of the same environmental groups leading the fight against salvage logging in the Rim Fire area had previously supported fuel reduction in the same places, Buckley says. “They supported thinning out the green trees, but now that those trees are black and dead they don’t want them cut.”

The lack of environmental oversight in McClintock’s bill is likely what sparked such a reactionary response. The issue has also driven a wedge between conservation groups that support an across-the-board ban on salvage logging and those seeking a compromise with timber interests. Buckley says he’s received “vitriolic” e-mails asking how he can support limited salvage logging and still call himself an environmentalist.

The Rim Fire was indisputably catastrophic. In recent weeks, walking through the scorched remains of forests he’s worked for decades to conserve, John Buckley has been moved to tears. The one silver lining is that the fire could provide space for a compromise – if extremists on both sides don’t squander the opportunity. Greens’ refusal to budge may come back to bite them, Buckley says.

“If (environmentalists) come out of this situation (looking like) obstructionists unwilling to find middle ground, it doesn’t help them get public support” for future causes, he says. In fact, it makes them look a lot like our current crop of Congressmen.


Flickr photo courtesy Stuart Rankin.

Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News. Follow her @KristaLanglois2.

Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Oct 15, 2013 02:45 PM
While forest fires are part of the natural cycle, I find myself recollecting another recent fire up in the White Mountains of Arizona. It was catastrophic for the White Mountain Apaches, doubly because one of their own started it, hoping for a job as a fire fighter.

The howl for harvesting fire-killed trees has been heard around the state, yet it seems that identifying the cause of some of the fires remains elusive. Now, you don't suppose that someone hoping to profit from the Rim fire set it, do you?

Jim Petersen
Jim Petersen
Oct 15, 2013 05:39 PM
Thinning trees from overstocked, at risk forests is much easier, more sustainable, more responsible, and a lot less expensive than picking up the pieces after the inevitable wildfire strikes. When you leave dead trees - and thus the forest - to one group's version of "nature" you leave fuel for the next fire (think of all those standing dead trees as thousands of lighting rods or matchsticks). All new growth destroyed, all the work that "nature" has accomplished set back even further. Subsequent fires will almost always destroy any seeds in the soil that survived the first fire and will destroy the organic soil layer, as well hindering regrowth and forest health exponentially. Those who want this type of "natural" forest have no business asking for our firefighters to go in and fight these massive and dangerous fires that are fueled by a build up of dead biomass, nor should they expect the intensive recovery programs from repeated fires - replanting, salvage, etc. unless they are willing to foot the bill...and it is a very large bill.
Daniel O'leary
Daniel O'leary
Oct 16, 2013 11:57 AM
The astounding proposal that burned-over areas provide fuel for future fire (IE " --- removing fuel that could feed future fires---") is ludicrous since all of the easily ignited fuel has already been ignited! There is no fuel left either on the trees or on the ground. Furthermore , besides other things, these remaining trees provide a very important source of nutrients for the next forest and provide erosion control. I have seen over and over the forest service and the logging industry lying to the population that these burnt out areas provide fuel for future forests. That is simply not true and a bald faced lie which most of the population believes because they just (understandably)don't understand how these things operate.
Ralph Maughan
Ralph Maughan Subscriber
Nov 04, 2013 06:35 PM
Given the incredible amount of already unburned and unsalvaged dead timber, making an issue out of a supposed need to salvage some even less valuable burned timber makes no forestry sense. However, most of the public doesn't know these facts. The public does know, however, there was a big wildfire.

If a person was looking for an issue to burn conservationists, as I suppose Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif is, the Rim Fire is ideal due to the public's attention.

Just to make sure conservationists don't compromise, this Republican does something the author didn't seem to pick up on. Timber salvage is almost never done in national parks or wilderness areas. Proposing to do so, guarantees a fight. There might be compromise if the bill was scaled back to national forest lands that were not part of well recognized nationally signifcant areas of beauty. THe inclusion of national park lands was no accident by McClintock.
Ralph Maughan
Ralph Maughan Subscriber
Nov 04, 2013 06:50 PM
I don't live in California so I haven't paid a lot of attention to this fire, given all the wildfires in my home of Idaho this last summer. Thinking on the subject now, one more political background factor occurs to me. Post wildfire resource protection and planning was delayed for a critical season by the government shutdown orchestrated by the House Republicans. THis controversy could also be a way by McClintock to try to claw his way back into public favor.