Does the Rim Fire leave room for compromise on salvage logging?


Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., might have known that his proposal to salvage burned timber from Yosemite’s Rim Fire would not go over smoothly. Not only is he trying to auction off logging contracts in a national park while his own party’s antics have kept that park closed to citizens, he wants to sidestep the whole “public process” thing to prevent environmentalists from getting in the way. Even when public input is allowed and citizens aren’t being arrested for setting foot in national parks, the mere suggestion of salvage logging is enough to draw controversy.

The idea itself is simple: In the aftermath of a forest fire, the U.S. Forest Service sometimes contracts private companies to haul out dead or damaged timber, removing fuel that could feed future fires and gleaning some money from an otherwise grim situation. But opponents say the process inhibits the forests’ natural ability to heal, punching new roads into already damaged land, sending heavy machinery trundling over sensitive soil and removing the dead snags that benefit wildlife.

The most recent high-profile controversy was Oregon’s 2002 Biscuit Fire. Environmental opposition there delayed salvage logging for years, and by the time the wood finally made it out of the forest, only a fifth was sold, in part because the logs were already rotting.

McClintock wants to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to the 1 billion board feet left by Yosemite’s Rim Fire. To try to expedite salvage, he’s introduced a bill to commercially log 257,000 acres of Yosemite National Park and Stanislaus National Forest without the public notice and environmental review that applies to most salvage timber sales on federal lands. McClintock’s bill, which has 11 co-sponsors and is now in committee, would also exempt the entire process from lawsuits.


Cleaning up Highway 120 after the Rim Fire.

“If any good can come of this tragedy, it would be the timely salvage of fire-killed timber that could provide employment to local mills and desperately needed economic activity to mountain communities,” McClintock said in a press statement. “But this can’t happen if salvage is indefinitely delayed by bureaucratic processes or the usual litigation filed by extremist environmental groups."

The bill seems unlikely to pass the Senate. But as expected, salvage logging opponents like The Wilderness Society are nonetheless outraged, arguing that salvage logging should not be allowed anywhere near the Rim Fire.  A spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity called the practice “barbaric,” while Chad Hanson, a forest and fire ecologist with the John Muir Project, opined in the Los Angeles Times that protecting burned areas is “important to the rejuvenation of the area's ecology” and any logging would “inflict significant damage and negate the many ecological benefits that fire brings.”

John Buckley, director for the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center and a 13-year veteran of wildland fire crews, says such groups are missing the point. Buckley doesn’t support indiscriminate logging like McClintock’s bill would allow. But nor does he believe that the entire 257,000 acres scarred by the Rim Fire should be off-limits. A one-size-fits-all solution for a fire this big doesn’t make sense.

“There’s ability to find middle ground,” Buckley says. Swaths of moderately scorched forest in the park – forest that can reseed naturally and provide habitat for animals like the black-backed woodpecker – could be left untouched, satisfying environmentalists, while limited logging (followed by reseeding) could be permitted in parts of the Stanislaus forest that burned more intensely and have lost some of their ability to reseed. Many such areas are already laced with roads and have been previously logged anyway.

Some of the same environmental groups leading the fight against salvage logging in the Rim Fire area had previously supported fuel reduction in the same places, Buckley says. “They supported thinning out the green trees, but now that those trees are black and dead they don’t want them cut.”

The lack of environmental oversight in McClintock’s bill is likely what sparked such a reactionary response. The issue has also driven a wedge between conservation groups that support an across-the-board ban on salvage logging and those seeking a compromise with timber interests. Buckley says he’s received “vitriolic” e-mails asking how he can support limited salvage logging and still call himself an environmentalist.

The Rim Fire was indisputably catastrophic. In recent weeks, walking through the scorched remains of forests he’s worked for decades to conserve, John Buckley has been moved to tears. The one silver lining is that the fire could provide space for a compromise – if extremists on both sides don’t squander the opportunity. Greens’ refusal to budge may come back to bite them, Buckley says.

“If (environmentalists) come out of this situation (looking like) obstructionists unwilling to find middle ground, it doesn’t help them get public support” for future causes, he says. In fact, it makes them look a lot like our current crop of Congressmen.


Flickr photo courtesy Stuart Rankin.

Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News. Follow her @KristaLanglois2.

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