The U.S. Forest Service is proposing an extensive salvage operation to log dead trees on about 46 square miles of timberland charred in last year's massive Rim fire in the Sierra Nevada.
The project would be one of the largest federal salvage efforts in California in years. If approved, it could yield more lumber than the combined annual output of all the national forests in the state.
But it is already triggering a fight by some environmentalists who argue that the post-fire logging would destroy valuable habitat for rare birds and other species that thrive in blackened forests.
The Rim, ignited by a hunter's illegal campfire in mid-August, was the biggest wildfire to hit the Sierra in more than a century of record keeping. It burned for more than two months, spreading over 154,430 acres of chaparral and timberland in the Stanislaus National Forest, about 24,000 acres of private land and roughly 77,000 acres in neighboring Yosemite National Park.
Most of the park acreage falls within the boundaries of federally designated wilderness areas. Other than cutting burned trees that pose a hazard along roads, the National Park Service is not doing any salvage logging, a Yosemite spokesman said.
The Forest Service, which is guided by a multiuse mandate to produce timber as well provide recreation and fish and wildlife habitat, has different ideas.
Forest managers want to offer salvage sales on nearly 30,000 of the roughly 103,000 acres of Stanislaus timberland burned in the fire. They also propose to construct 22 miles of temporary roads and six miles of new, permanent roads to serve the salvage operations, as well as rebuild hundreds of miles of forest roads damaged in the blaze.
"It seems like a reasonable and effective strategy to respond to the issues," said Joe Sherlock, regional silviculturist for the Forest Service.
The Stanislaus has launched an environmental review of the proposal and is asking the Forest Service chief in Washington to designate an "emergency situation" that would allow salvage to begin immediately after approval without going through an administrative appeal process. The project would still be subject to legal challenges under federal environmental law.
Even with emergency status, the project would not begin until August, according to documents.
By that time, said Steven Brink, vice president for public resources at the California Forestry Assn., about 40% of the timber will have decayed too much to be commercially valuable. But he estimates that would still leave 270 million board feet to harvest — enough to keep two local saw mills busy for two years.
John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, a regional conservation group, said he did not object to expedited review of the proposal nor to much of the logging. "If we're going to have a project, let's at least get the wood when it has value," he said.
But Buckley expressed several concerns. He opposes plans to build permanent new roads in the burn area, including a segment that would punch into a wild portion of the Clavey River canyon that Buckley said harbors one of the last surviving blocks of low-elevation, old-growth trees in the Stanislaus.
He worried that logging 1,300 steep acres using a cable system — in which logs are suspended from cables and hauled to roads — would accelerate erosion. And he questioned whether the Forest Service would leave enough large, dead trees that birds and other wildlife use for nesting and foraging.
"It just doesn't make sense to debate salvage logging in sensitive areas or to build controversial new roads when there are hundreds of millions of board feet of salvage trees that can be logged on noncontroversial sites," Buckley said.
Other conservationists oppose any salvage timber sales on the Rim landscape.
"This is about the money. It's not about recovery of the ecosystem," argued Chad Hanson, director of the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute. "The ecosystem doesn't need intervention for that. The fire itself was ecological restoration."
The Muir project is one of several groups that have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the California-Oregon population of the black-backed woodpecker under the Endangered Species Act. The woodpecker, virtually invisible to predators on a blackened tree, is an expert at drilling for the beetles that feast on standing, fire-killed trees, called snags.
Federal fire suppression policies and salvage logging have diminished the bird's habitat, reducing its population in Oregon and California to about 1,000 pairs, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which joined the listing petition.
Unfortunately for the woodpecker, it favors the same dense stands of bigger snags that loggers like.
Justin Augustine, senior attorney for the center, said 65% of the areas proposed for salvage operations in the Stanislaus overlap with black-backed woodpecker habitat. "That's off-the-charts bad in terms of not leaving enough snags," he said.
Sherlock said the Forest Service hasn't made a final determination of how much snag habitat to leave in place.
Although the salvage proposal doesn't include replanting proposals, the agency would probably replant most logged areas.
Sherlock said foresters would take into account climate change and the uphill movement of species in selecting planting elevations. They would also try to mimic more natural planting patterns than the regimented rows of pines typical of traditional plantations.
The Rim fire burned about 25,000 to 30,000 acres of existing plantations established after previous wildfires in the Stanislaus. Forest officials doubt any salvage logging will be conducted in those areas because the trees aren't big enough.