Congress tries to speed up contentious post-fire logging

New legislation comes despite science showing timber salvage harms essential wildlife habitat


The third-largest wildfire in California history, 2013’s Rim Fire, burned more than 400 square miles, including parts of Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest. A year later, the Forest Service proposed cutting down the dead and damaged trees across about 50 square miles, but environmental groups sued to stop the salvage logging, saying it would harm wildlife and impede forest regeneration.

Their appeal was denied and logging began, but the groups’ concerns are increasingly borne out by science: Recently-released studies point to the crucial importance of burned-over habitat for many species, including the Pacific fisher and black-backed woodpecker. Despite this, Congressional Republicans are pushing two bills, supported by the timber industry, that would speed up logging in national forests after wildfires and reduce environmental review.

  • Rim fire

    Salvage logging after Rim fire in southern California. Salvage crews felled burned and dying trees, and sprayed herbicides.

    Chad Hanson
  • Unlogged snag forest

    Healthy unlogged snag forest habitat.

    Chad Hanson

The House recently passed H.R. 2647, the Resilient Federal Forests Act, on a party-line vote and sent it on to the Senate. A similar Senate bill, S. 1691, the National Forest Ecosystem Improvement Act, was introduced in June by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming. Hearings were held in July by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. Both bills would allow widespread logging of burned trees as well as older, unburned trees. They would limit federal oversight of such logging, exempt many projects from review entirely, and make it much harder to challenge them in court. “It’s no secret that our National Forests are dangerously overgrown, unhealthy and suffering from severe disease and insect infestation. If left untreated, these forests will continue to be at extreme risk for catastrophic wildfires," said Barrasso in a press release. 

The bill would also create local “collaboration groups,” which critics say will be dominated by industry and development interests, and which would provide the main source of public input into project plans. At the hearings, reports Wyofile, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell criticized Barrasso’s bill as limiting public involvement, expediting logging at the expense of other forest uses, and ignoring the biggest threat to national forests – a firefighting budget that siphons money from other essential forest health programs.

The bills’ supporters say that cutting burned trees soon after a wildfire reduces fuel for future fires, and allows the Forest Service to recoup some of the trees’ value as timber. They blame reductions in commercial logging for increased fire risk. But researchers are finding that commercial logging and clearcutting may actually increase damage from future fires. In the Rim Fire and other large fires, the areas that burned least intensely were those that had been protected from logging, in which big, mature thick-barked trees more readily withstood the heat of the flames.  Young, recently-planted trees and debris from logging operations proved highly flammable.

 The ecological importance of large mixed-intensity fires is clear -- they help produce a mosaic of habitat types, and patches that burn at high intensity, where most or all of the trees are killed, become “snag forests,” one of the rarest but most ecologically vital habitat types, says Chad Hanson, director of the John Muir Project, a nonprofit group that opposes salvage logging.

Aerial of Rim fire logging
Aerial of post-fire logging in Rim Fire area, southern California.
Maya Khosla

“We have a deficit of fire in forest ecosystems across the West relative to historic norms,” Hanson says. “The reason that matters is many different wildlife species have evolved to depend on the unique habitat created by high intensity fire.” The big dead trees of snag forests draw wood-boring beetles, which attract woodpeckers, whose abandoned nests become homes for mountain bluebirds and pine martens. Shrubs and grass grow back, attracting mice, ground squirrels and their predators, like owls, goshawks and foxes. Deer and elk forage, while bears come to feed on berries. Hanson and two dozen other fire ecologists recently released The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix, compiling science-based accounts from around the world showing that forest ecosystems require many different types of wildfire, ranging from light to severe, to remain healthy and productive.

Salvage logging shortcircuits the post-fire rejuvenation process, many studies show, removing the snags and downed trees that create shade and shelter. Heavy machinery can destroy regenerating conifers and other plant life and create erosion, while herbicides prevent the growth of beneficial shrubs and forbs. Hanson describes it as “kicking the forest when it’s down.”

In response to the current salvage-logging bills, last month he and more than 260 other scientists sent a letter to President Barack Obama and the Senate, stating that the bills “misrepresent scientific evidence” and “post-fire habitats created by fire, including patches of severe fire, are ecological treasures rather than ecological catastrophes, and that post-fire logging does far more harm than good to public forests.”  

The legislation reflects 19th century forestry assumptions, says Hanson. Salvage logging is justified only when public safety is at risk, to remove dead trees that might fall on hikers and campers, he says. “The position of these bills is dramatically contradicted by overwhelming scientific evidence.”

Jodi Peterson is a senior editor at High Country News.

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