Logging Conflict Flares After Fires
Armed with statistics and slogans, environmentalists and loggers are squaring off in political battle over what to do with thousands of square miles of national forest land blackened by fire over the last two years.
Record volumes of fire-killed trees already have mill hands working overtime in the Northwestern timber states of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and Montana, but still at issue is how much more timber should be cut in remote or scenic areas.
Loggers say they only want to fell dead trees before insects or rot consume them, but environmentalists fear viable trees are also being taken in the rush and that logging roads are being bulldozed through wilderness areas in a sly effort to open them up to chain saws.
The Forest Service, meanwhile, is scrambling to balance both views and also cope with the staff-stretching logistics of a once-in-a-century series of fire seasons.
The conflict flared tellingly a week ago, when more than 1,200 log trucks paraded through Grants Pass to support more “salvage sales” in burned areas. At the same time, environmentalists spent the time hiking scorched sections of the Trinity National Forest in California to gather evidence against the next sale.
With so much of the West charred by drought-fed fires, and with the logging industry enjoying a record cutting year as a result, both sides sense that the debate over salvage sales may mold forest management practices that will have an impact for the rest of the century.
“A lot of shortcuts are being taken under the guise of a salvage sale and a lot of environmental damage could be done,” said Patricia Schifferle of the Wilderness Society after examining proposed salvage sites along the South Fork of the Trinity River. “We think they (the U.S. Forest Service) are using this sale to predetermine the whole planning process.”
R. B. (Bob) Slagle, an Oregon trucking contractor who coordinated the Grants Pass event, said critics are “throwing roadblocks in an orderly process.”
“People who work in the forest products industry are fed up,” snapped Jim Petersen, a free-lance industry publicist. “We’re going to band together to tell our story and protect ourselves from those environmentalists who would lock up the forests.”
While some people, including members of the radical environmental group Earth First!, have fought all salvage sales, more mainstream organizations such as the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club support salvage efforts as long as they do not require new roads, take living trees or encourage erosion. The loss of soil to erosion inhibits forest regeneration and clogs up rivers, killing fish.
“None of us (environmentalists) are so much concerned with the burnt trees being removed as much as we are (concerned) with the way they’re doing it, the environmentally destructive way they are doing it,” said local resident Larry Glass, a member of the South Fork Mountain Defense Committee.
Range of Arguments
Arguments over salvaging have ranged from administrative appeals preventing the felling of individual trees to federal lawsuits challenging the salvage of entire forests. Such tactics were so effective in the Siskiyou National Forest of southern Oregon that Republican Sen. Mark O. Hatfield persuaded Congress in August to forbid further appeals or lawsuits.
“In a salvage sale, time is of the essence,” said Julie McGregor, an aide to Hatfield. “There was concern that if appeals escalated to the judicial level, it would take so long that by the time a decision was made there would be no timber left to salvage.”
Controversy over salvage sales occurs in part because of the unusual ways in which fire affects a forest. Fires burn neither consistently nor contiguously. Instead, they hop around and, depending on the weather and the amount of duff, dead wood and other fuel on the ground, they burn some areas severely, other areas moderately and the rest hardly at all.
As a result, an irregular patchwork is formed, in which an area of complete destruction can adjoin an area where only the top of the duff has been singed. Complicating matters is the tendency of some trees to respond unpredictably to fire. A tree with badly charred bark, for example, may have viable cambium (the layer of growth cells beneath the bark) and be able to live, while another tree with less visible damage may be hopeless.
“Sometimes people see good-looking logs coming out of a fire-salvage area, and they think, ‘Oh, the Forest Service is just using the fire as an excuse to cut down the forest,’ ” said Matt Mathes of the Forest Service’s regional office in San Francisco.
“In reality, what happened is the fire may have burned up and around it (a tree) and killed the cambium layer,” he said. “It might not look dead to the casual observer and it may even stay green for a while, but it’s really as dead as a Christmas tree.”
These factors, as well as geology, hydrology and biology, are compiled into an environmental assessment and used to produce several salvage plan options. Each plan suggests different balances of such conflicting values as industry’s need for saw logs and wildlife’s need for habitat, the value of trees being cut versus the cost of replacing them.
The plans must also decide how each burn area is to be salvaged, as well as how much timber can be taken. Some areas, for example, may be suitable for the inexpensive option of tractor clear-cut, in which all trees are cut using heavy equipment, while other areas are best managed by using helicopters to haul out only those trees individually marked by a forester. Still other areas could be left undisturbed.
Elements of Plans
At the same time, the plans must include efforts to encourage the growth of new trees, discourage erosion and renew wildlife habitat. These efforts are to be paid in part out of revenue from timber sales.
Biologists, silviculturists and other scientists who author the complicated assessments are under pressure to turn them out in a hurry because there is so much land to assess and so little time to assess it before the burned trees are infested with insects or otherwise rendered unsalable.
Fire has burned more than 3.55 million acres of the Western United States and Alaska so far this year, according to the National Interagency Firefighting Center in Boise, Ida., and the National Weather Service expects hot, dry fire weather to last until October. Another 2.4 million acres burned last year, bringing total losses to 9,300 square miles, roughly the size of Vermont; a large but unknown percentage of that was national forest land.
In California, more than 850,000 acres burned last year with another 86,000 so far this year. Most of that area was national forest land.
The result: a saw log bonanza. The Forest Service estimates fire salvage in California alone may yield 1.6 billion board-feet of timber. That is nearly as much added timber as the average annual production of 1.75 billion board-feet. A board-foot is a volume estimate equal to 1 square foot, an inch thick.
The greatest per-acre losses--and thus the hottest salvage arguments--are in Oregon and California, where large stands of high-value, old-growth Douglas fir trees were burned.
The large size and dense grain of the trees make them attractive to loggers because they fetch higher prices in the market. However, the 150- to 200-year-old trees also are the required habitat for spotted owls, a species the Forest Service believes is being forced closer to extinction because of the shrinking amount of old-growth forest.
Environmentalists first tried to scale back salvage operations earlier this summer in the North Kalmiopsis Roadless Area of southwestern Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest. Using tactics ranging from a federal lawsuit to tree-sitters, they succeeded only in shortening a proposed new logging road and trimming off a few sale parcels before Hatfield’s congressional amendment effectively ended the argument last month.
Neither side was pleased with the outcome. Earth First! members say they will continue to fight any extension of the Bald Mountain logging road, a battle they have pursued for a decade. Loggers showed their dissatisfaction by organizing the truckers parade in Grants Pass--an event Petersen described as “the seeds of a movement” to counter environmentalists.
“There is 250 million feet of standing dead (timber) out there, and we may get at most 110 million of it,” said Grants Pass trucker Larry Brown, another parade coordinator. “Letting the rest of it rot is a crime, just a crime.”
Cheered for Trucks
That idea was seconded by many of the hundreds of Grants Pass residents who lined up along the main street of their town of 15,000 to wave symbolic yellow ribbons and cheer the trucks during their four-hour parade through town.
Attention is now turning toward the next planned salvage sale, 17,200 acres near the wild and scenic South Fork of the Trinity River in the rugged Trinity National Forest of Northern California. A final environmental impact statement has just been released and the area is scheduled to go to bid this month.
The Wilderness Society, which sued unsuccessfully in federal court to block the North Kalmiopsis sale, already has expressed an intent to administratively appeal this new sale and, if necessary, try to modify it in court.
Schifferle, the group’s regional director for California and Nevada, walked through the steep and remote proposed sale areas last weekend with a lawyer, a forester and local residents. She was gathering evidence of problems with past and proposed salvaging, such as living trees incorrectly marked as dead and erosion-prone trails and roads.
In many areas, the registered forester hired by the society, Greg Blomstrom of Arcata, advised that Forest Service plans are proper; in others, he offered an opposing view, suggesting, for example, that some marginal areas are included in the salvage plan to give lumber firms a reason to cut new roads that can be used later for access to other areas for logging.
Such charges were anticipated by Forest Supervisor Robert R. Tyrrel when he selected the Forest Service’s preferred salvage plan, which would produce 18.2 million board-feet of timber while “minimizing the cost of the project to the government.” He dismissed the effects of new roads as “insignificant.”
Others are less certain. The California Department of Fish and Game, state Department of Conservation and federal Environmental Protection Agency express some concern that intensive logging permitted by new roads may promote erosion that could hurt the forest and salmon and trout fisheries by silting streams.
“The fire was natural disaster enough,” said Joseph Bower, a private tree farmer in nearby Hayfork and one of those helping the Wilderness Society. “We want to make sure that the way the Forest Service is handling the salvage does not make it even worse.”