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 wind protection, 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-establishment 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 non-partisan Government Accounting Office recently released an economic analysis of salvage logging in Montana'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.