Bush administration pushes to cut trees burned by Oregon’s Biscuit Fire, science be damned

PORTLAND, OREGON — Wildfire made history in the summer of 2002, when it roared across much of the West, including more than 400,000 acres of southwest Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest. The Biscuit Fire exploded in mid-July after lightning ignited tinder-dry forests and high winds fanned the flames. It grew to become the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history and one of the nation’s largest in a summer of massive forest fires (HCN, 5/26/03: A losing battle).

The Biscuit Fire was precedent-setting for another reason: It burned mostly in areas where logging is prohibited. Roughly 75 percent burned within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, roadless areas, wild and scenic river corridors, and research natural areas established to protect rare plants. One-third burned in reserves established under the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan to protect wildlife, including the northern spotted owl, which depends on giant old-growth trees. Only 7 percent burned within areas earmarked for commercial logging.

Because this burn was largely off-limits to “salvage” logging of fire-killed trees, it appeared that most of the blackened landscape would be left alone, to recover on nature’s timetable.

A Forest Service team set to work developing a range of alternatives for managing the post-fire landscape to protect communities near the burn, preserve surviving old-growth habitat, control future fires — and sell a little timber. A draft environmental impact statement, originally scheduled for release in August, called for salvaging between 20 million and 456 million board-feet of timber outside of protected areas, planting seedlings on 28,000 acres, and conducting thinning and prescribed burns on ridgetops and along roads.

But with an estimated 5 billion board-feet of burned timber still standing in the woods, logging advocates weren’t content to sit back and let nature take its course.

Report calls for massive logging

This spring, the board of commissioners in Douglas County, northeast of Siskiyou National Forest, ponied up $25,000 for a study of the potential benefits of salvage logging. The fast-track study by four faculty members at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry was led by John Sessions, a professor of forest engineering. No biologists served on the study team.

Doug Robertson, the pro-logging commissioner who pushed for the study, says he hoped it would answer two questions about salvaging timber on 80,000 acres that had burned on the Southern Cascades in 2002: “Is there an environmental or economic cost in delay? And how do you quantify it?”

But Sessions and his boss, forestry dean and former Regional Forester for the Forest Service’s Northern Region Hal Salwasser, chose to focus instead on the Biscuit Fire. They did so even though the Siskiyou Mountains, where the Biscuit burned, and the Cascades of Douglas County are entirely different ecosystems, with different soil types, tree species and fire histories.

“Sessions and Salwasser said, ‘We can do it a lot cheaper, a lot quicker on the Biscuit Fire’ because so much information already was available on pre- and post-fire conditions there,” Robertson recalls.

The Sessions report, released in mid-July, was a wake-up call for those who thought one of the most diverse conifer forests in North America was safe from massive salvage logging.

The report estimated that up to 2.5 billion board-feet of timber damaged by the Biscuit Fire or “at risk” of insect infestations could be salvaged if loggers were allowed in roadless areas, late-successional reserves and other areas presently off-limits; revenue from the sale could pay to plant seedlings on 137,000 acres. It also called for widespread spraying of herbicides to control native shrubs such as tanoak, ceanothus and manzanita that could crowd out conifer seedlings. Accelerating the growth of these new plantations could hasten conifer growth and the return of habitat for the spotted owl, the Sessions team said. The Forest Service estimates that the hot fire burned nearly a quarter of the forest’s 202 known owl-nesting sites.

The report went further, suggesting that the time had come to re-evaluate the rules and policies that prevented aggressive salvage logging in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere. What if, the authors asked, the Forest Service allowed logging everywhere outside wilderness? What if the courts overturned the Roadless Area Rule, opening roadless areas to logging? Why not test the limits of the Northwest Forest Plan by conducting intensive salvage logging in old-growth reserves?

“The Biscuit Fire presents area managers and the American people with a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to use such a large event to document the consequences and tradeoffs associated with letting nature take its course vs. taking a variety of actions to influence future conditions,” the Sessions team wrote. The authors of the Sessions report warned that leaving the forest to its own devices would produce dire consequences. Not only would the economic value of fire-damaged timber decline rapidly, not only would standing dead snags eventually fall and litter the forest floor, kindling future fires, but the Biscuit Fire area would become a vast brush field for decades.

“If management decisions are not made and acted upon very soon,” they wrote, “nature will replace old forests with shrublands for a very long time in the future.”

Scientific debate flares up

Criticism of the Sessions report has been swift and damning.

“In the continuing effort to promote logging in some of the most ecologically important Northwest forests, a railroad job is under way,” former U.S. Rep. Les AuCoin, D-Ore., now a college professor, wrote in the Eugene Register-Guard. “Timber industry advocates in Washington, D.C., already are touting the (Sessions) report as a model for charred forests throughout the West.”

Environmentalists call the Sessions approach “forestry from the dark ages,” and many take issue with the proposal for using industrial forest techniques to create fast-growing conifer plantations in one of the planet’s most diverse temperate forests.

“A lot of those brush species that would be treated with herbicides may serve functions that could hasten regeneration,” says Romain Cooper, conservation director for the Siskiyou Regional Education Project. “They hold the soil in place, provide shade, fix nitrogen.”

Many critics cite a landmark 1995 report in which a team of leading Northwest scientists, headed by Oregon State University professor Robert Beschta, an expert on watersheds and hydrology, declared there was no ecological reason to salvage burned timber. Logging burned landscapes increases soil compaction and soil erosion, and it clogs streams with sediment, burying salmon spawning grounds, they warned.

Several respected scientists added their names to an opinion piece by Dominick DellaSala, forest ecologist for the World Wildlife Fund’s Klamath-Siskiyou Project, which ran in the Portland Oregonian and denounced the Sessions plan as “scientifically indefensible.”

“It ignores much of what forest scientists have learned over the past 35 years about fire science, restoration, biological diversity and how ecosystems function,” they wrote. “Large deadwood plays a number of critical functions in forests, including anchoring soils, shading seedlings from intense sunlight and providing habitat for scores of insect-eating bats and birds.”

Sessions insists that his intent was to promote forest regeneration, not push salvage logging. “Logging in roadless areas is not really what this report is about,” he says. “I’m not that interested in salvage. That’s a fleeting issue, although it has always seemed to make better sense to put fire-killed trees through mills than green ones.”

Nonetheless, the Bush administration jumped on the report. According to County Commissioner Robertson, Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey and his staff reviewed the Sessions report in detail. On Aug. 15, four weeks after the report’s release, Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Scott Conroy announced that his agency was delaying the release of the draft environmental impact statement on the Biscuit Fire while it develops two new alternatives based on the Sessions report.

“Now that it is out, we have to consider this approach even if it wouldn’t be allowed under current laws and rules,” says Forest Service spokesman Rex Holloway. “If we didn’t consider it, we would be vulnerable to legal challenges.”

Bush pushes for “forest health” logging

Larry Campbell, conservation director of the Montana-based Friends of the Bitterroot, is familiar with the arguments the Sessions report makes for salvage logging, especially the warning that soil-cooking “re-burns” will result when dead snags fall and build up on the forest floor.

He heard those same arguments from officials on Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest after 65,000 acres of the forest burned in 2000. Salvage logging on the Bitterroot is now underway; as of May, about 10,500 acres had been logged and about 19 million board-feet of timber had been removed.

“The Bitterroot was a template,” Campbell says. “It got hit first with these big fires. They learned how to take advantage of the fear of local communities. I’d like to ask the forest supervisor to show me a place where this re-burn has happened. It gets hyped so much, but when you go back later you find the fire has not sterilized the soil.”

In fact, Campbell says, salvage logging has actually increased the fire risk on the Bitterroot, as even the Forest Service admitted it would. “The Forest Service high-graded the big trees and left a lot of slash on the ground,” he says. “You ever see trees less than 12 to 13 inches in diameter going out on the logging trucks,” even though those larger trees are the most fire-resistant.

The Sessions report took note of another quick-turnaround salvage operation, this one in Arizona, where the Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned 462,000 acres in June 2002. Of the total, 276,000 acres were within the White Mountain Apache Reservation. By last November, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had developed a timber salvage plan, completed an environmental analysis and awarded contracts, and salvage logging had begun. The reservation is now producing about 500,000 board-feet of salvaged timber per day.

“The accelerated administrative process compressed the normal two-year timber-sale preparation process into four months,” the Sessions report noted. Meanwhile, on the nearby Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, a timber-salvage plan is under appeal, and the economic value of the charred ponderosa pine is rapidly being lost.

The message couldn’t be clearer. During August tours of wildfire sites in Arizona and Oregon, President Bush called on Congress to help him implement his Healthy Forests Initiative, which would streamline approval of so-called “forest health” logging projects across the West by limiting appeals and lawsuits. But some well-placed observers predict that the president won’t stop there. Some see the overhauling of the Biscuit Fire environmental impact statement as the opening volley in a confrontation with environmentalists over logging.

Others, like DellaSala, say the administration may hope to move the goalposts by putting two extreme alternatives in the environmental impact statement to make the previous extreme — salvage logging of 456 million board-feet of timber — look moderate in comparison.

Sessions is pleased that his report has shifted the discussion. “That’s exactly what I was hoping for,” he says. “I believe that Oregonians should really thank those Douglas County commissioners for just asking the question, ‘What are the costs of management delay?’ Nobody has ever asked that question before.”

Yet, many question the wisdom of pushing for maximum salvage logging and industrial-style plantations in the Siskiyous — even if it is in the name of growing big “late-successional” trees more quickly. These are forests that have always been valued more for their ecological diversity, their remoteness and their wild rivers than for their timber.

“The Siskiyous are a lot more than habitat for late-successional species (such as spotted owls),” says Cooper of the Siskiyou Project. “Any management plan that focuses only on that is misguided. We want evolutionary forces that have been there from time immemorial to go on unimpeded by our concept of what these forests should contain.”

The author writes from Portland, Oregon.

Oregon State University Forest engineering professor John Sessions, 541-737-2818

Siskiyou Regional Education Project Romain Cooper, 541-592-4459

World Wildlife Fund’s Klamath-Siskiyou Project Dominick DellaSala, 541-482-4878

U.S. Forest Service Rex Holloway, 503-808-2241