Study questions value of post-fire logging

by Sarah Gilman

Scientists find that salvage logging may slow forest recovery


The debate over the merits of post-fire logging has opened a schism at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry. A team of graduate students and scientists is defending its controversial new study against a dissenting faction of forestry professors.

Foresters commonly argue that post-fire logging removes dangerously flammable dead wood, and that forests recover faster when logged and replanted. But Dan Donato, a graduate student who conducted the new study with five colleagues, found that areas of the Siskiyou Mountains burned by the 2002 Biscuit Fire were bristling with naturally established conifer seedlings two years later. The researchers also found that subsequent salvage logging killed three-quarters of the new trees, and elevated fire danger by scattering tinder on the ground.

When the prestigious journal Science accepted the paper in December, however, the ensuing media blitz prompted a backlash from within the College of Forestry. The school has close ties to the timber industry and is home to the authors of a controversial 2003 report that advocated salvaging up to 2 billion board-feet of timber from the Biscuit as a forest recovery measure (HCN, 5/16/05: Unsalvageable). The lead author of that report, forestry engineering professor John Sessions, and several other OSU and Forest Service scientists submitted a letter to Science asking the journal to drop Donato’s study because it "contributes no new science" and its broad conclusions are only based on the first three years of forest recovery, when long-term seedling success is hard to gauge.

The article appeared in the Jan. 20 issue nonetheless. Science Chief Editor Donald Kennedy said that the paper went through the same review process the magazine uses for all its articles. Critics can handle the dispute the traditional way, Kennedy says, by responding to the paper now that it’s been published.

Neither Donato nor any of the other authors will comment, but Tom Hinckley, a professor in University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources, points out that the study has more breadth and depth than the one-page article in Science suggests. "For that fire and the period of time following that fire," says Hinckley, the authors "had every right to generalize about salvage logging." Hinckley also points out that the original Sessions report did not go through a rigorous independent review.

The new study is part of a growing body of literature that questions the ecological value of post-fire logging. Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist with the World Wildlife Fund, says that there is an emerging consensus among scientists that logging burned areas can exacerbate soil damage and erosion, harm waterways, increase fire danger, and hinder natural forest recovery by killing seedlings. More importantly, it removes the big dead trees that contribute to habitat diversity and critical forest processes such as nutrient cycling.

Science demonstrating the ecological value of post-fire logging is rare, says University of Central Florida conservation biology professor Reed Noss. What is available falls in the category of "gray literature," a body of industry and agency reports that does not undergo the rigorous peer review process applied by scientific journals.

But salvage logging and replanting can speed forest recovery, says John Fertig, a forester in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. This is crucial, he says, because the Biscuit burned 133,700 acres of forest in "late successional reserves," set aside to protect species like the northern spotted owl that depend on big old-growth trees. According to Fertig, natural regeneration is unpredictable and could take up to 200 years. Active salvage, replanting and thinning can speed up the process to 150 years.

Without salvage logging, argues Tom Lavagnino, a retired public affairs officer for the Biscuit Fire recovery effort, there would be no funding for forest restoration. About half of the money the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest brought in from Biscuit timber sales, $4.4 million, is slated for local reforestation.

At the federal level, though, salvage logging might be a shaky economic proposition. A new World Wildlife Fund study puts the Forest Service’s net loss from the Biscuit salvage project at $9.3 million.

The debate over post-fire logging has come to a head as Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., are finalizing the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act, a new bill that aims to speed forest recovery practices, such as salvage logging, in the wake of natural disasters. Regarding the bill, Randi Spivak, executive director of the American Lands Alliance, says, "I just hope that when members of Congress are voting, they pay close attention to (the scientific) facts."

The author is an HCN intern.

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