Of salvage logging and salvation

  • Pepper Trail


Salvage is a word that is much in the air these days, not just in the woods, but also in the lecture halls of universities and in the marble corridors of Washington, D.C. It is a word of power, a soothing word implying many virtues: prudence and profit, rescue and redemption, both exploitation and, somehow, protection. No wonder politicians love it so.

Among the definitions of "salvage" in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language are these: "the act of saving imperiled property from loss" and "something saved from destruction or waste and put to further use." It couldn’t be clearer: Salvage is salvation. But definitions, like history, are written by the winners. In this case, the winners are those who decide on the meaning of the words property, loss, destruction, waste and use.

For boosters of salvage logging, the property in question is timber damaged or killed by fire, insects or other "catastrophes." Loss, destruction and waste? They mean by that the decay of snags and fallen trees. "Use" refers to the harvested logs and the money to be made from them. Under this definition, what is saved by the act of salvage is timber for the mill.

But what about the forest? If our goal, after a fire, a windstorm or an insect outbreak, is to salvage the forest — to save it from destruction or waste — how would we do that?

This is not a rhetorical question. Research scientists have been hard at work examining this very issue. And it turns out that if your goal is to salvage a forest, then salvage logging is the last thing you want to do. From the perspective of the forest, the terms "waste" and "loss" apply to the logged trees that are taken out of the system: Their removal is a dead loss to the forest.

What good are dead trees? They are essential for forest recovery, from the very first days after a fire to the very end of the process. In the days and weeks after a fire, both standing snags and downed logs help to stabilize the newly exposed soil and prevent erosion. Snags provide shade and protection from wind, creating buffered microhabitats favorable to the germination and survival of colonizing herbaceous plants and tree seedlings. Dead trees are essential habitat for many species of wildlife, from woodpeckers to cavity-roosting birds and bats, to salamanders that live beneath decaying logs. And the gradual decay of dead trees releases nutrients into the soil that are the basis for renewed fertility and the re-stablishment of the complex, essential community of soil fungi and invertebrates.

Despite the value of dead trees for forest recovery, many people still support salvage logging for a perfectly understandable reason: The burned timber is just too valuable to leave to rot. It’s a simple matter of dollars and cents.

But in fact the economics of salvage logging are anything but simple. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office recently released an economic analysis of salvage logging in Oregon’s Biscuit Fire through 2005. The results may shock you. Logging produced $8.8 million in revenues but cost $10.7 million. What’s more, most of the income — more than $5 million — came from hazard-tree removal, not salvage logging. Far from being too good a deal to pass up, the salvage- logging program cost American taxpayers millions of dollars. Both the forest and our pocketbooks would have been much better off if it had never happened.

So what would it look like if we took the powerful idea of salvage and applied it to living systems, not commercial commodities? Using prescribed fire to thin overstocked forests and save them from wildfire becomes "salvage burning" — what a concept. How about "river salvage," an appropriate term for removing dams to restore free-flowing rivers and save threatened salmon populations? And "species salvage" perfectly describes habitat protection in the name of saving endangered species such as spotted owls and grizzly bears.

If we can train ourselves to define "salvage" in this holistic, ecological way, perhaps we will be able to save something that sometimes seems beyond salvation: our relationship with the earth.


Pepper Trail is a biologist and writer in Ashland, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Jan 01, 2007 10:17 AM

Pepper does not mention the loss of value of the wood over time
while activity was delayed by litagation.  That happened, reducing
revenue AND increasing cost through litigation expenditures, and it's
in the report.  She does not mention the rehab performed, in the
form of replanting and seeding, brush removal, road and trail repair,
streambank repair, and erosion control.  These things happened,
increasing the cost of Biscuit fire projects.  All these things
went into GAO's cost-benefit analysis.  Of COURSE more was spent
than taken in over the course of Biscuit fire rehab activity.

would she have it?  That no stream or trail repair occur in the
burnt areas of wilderness?  Shall we let damaged roads dump
sediment into fish waters?  Do we just allow invasive weeds to
take over burned and damaged riparian areas?  Some of these rehab
activities cannot happen in the most severly burned areas until salvage
operations get some of the downed trees out of the way (That, too, is
in the report).  And without some timber harvest revenue to offset
the cost of rehab, how much rehab does she think would have
happened?  Ask your congressman that question.  THEY'RE the
ones to whom this is a matter of dollars and cents.

And if you
look at the maps in the GAO report (still quite accessible on-line),
you will see that the planned and completed timber salvage operations
cover PRECIOUS LITTLE of the total ground that was burned.  You
can bet the real rehab, in the form of projects such as those mentioned
above, cover a WHOLE lot more of the burned area. 

Sometimes I wish the Forest Service could catch a break. 

Jan 29, 2007 11:27 AM

No, I agree with Pepper. He is correct.  I live in Medford, and have read alot of information about salvage logging in the Biscuit fire. The most beneficial way to restore the forest is to leave it alone. I like his concepts of "salvage burning", "river salvage", and "species salvage".  Those are positive steps, and the ones that should be made. 

Feb 28, 2007 10:50 AM

Actually if the Forest Service can use logging in areas to subsidize the overall cost to taxpayers to rehab other tracts land why not do it?  The projects have to go through the NEPA process which allows for public comment, not to mention the court battles that they wade through. 

I look at the numbers (I don't know the whole story) and see that 1.9 million tax dollars were spent to complete the project rather than 19.7 (of course this is assuming that the rehab activities were considered in those totals). 

Apr 23, 2007 11:17 AM




Aug 17, 2007 11:52 AM

I agree with TheSunIsATeacup. Leaving such a valuable commodity such as the already blown down/detached timber to simply rot is a waste. I am all for leaving the remaining standing snags to provide perches and woodpecker homes, but fallen timber is only good for fungi, beetles, etc. Why not remove the downed timber and since it is a wilderness area, allow it to naturally produce its own cover. How good is it to a deer/elk to have an area so covered in timber that they have to detour around it and it is unusable to them. If it were cleared, a large area of grazing land where the grass would sprout would be very beneficial.

 The money obtained from such activities goes into the account of the agency performing the cleanup. National Park Services, National Forest Service, and more are able to take this money and use it to purchase new areas for public use, renovate or rehab areas. It is wasteful not to use an asset to its fullest potential. Especially when it can benefit so many more things.