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Environment, Energy and Transportation

How Much Of The Chetco Bar Burn Should Be Salvage Logged?

Liam Moriarty/JPR News
A view of part of the Chetco Bar fire area, taken in October, 2017. Note the "mosaic" burn pattern, with severely burned areas alternating with areas of moderate or light burning.

Managers at the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest are weighing how much of the area burned in Oregon’s largest fire last year should be salvage logged.

But while harvesting partially burned trees will put cash in local pockets, the forest health and fire safety benefits that proponents claim are more elusive.

The Chetco Bar fire was barely out last fall when Curry County Commissioner Court Boice began urging salvage operations. So you might think Boice would be pleased that the Forest Service is gearing up to get the chainsaws running this summer … He’s not.

“I’m very disappointed, very unhappy.”

About 170,000 acres of national forest land was affected by the Chetco Bar fire, but managers decided to consider salvage logging only on areas designated for timber harvest under the Northwest Forest Plan. Of the 25,000 or so acres of those lands in the burn zone, managers proposed logging on just over 4,000 acres of moderately to severely burned forest … Boice says much more should have been made available.

“With the present road systems we have,” he says, “I think you could have done 30 or 40,000, which would have been far less painful.”

Boice says the timber jobs generated by a larger salvage operation would make a big difference in his economically-depressed county.

Nick Smith is unhappy with the size of the proposed project, as well.

“Now we have a plan that salvages less than two-and-a-half percent of the Forest Service lands that have been affected,” he says.

Smith heads Health Forests Healthy Communities, a timber industry-affiliated non-profit that advocates for active forest management. He says the relatively small post-fire logging project the Forest Service is planning is not only economically inadequate …

“ … but also a missed opportunity to reforest more of the landscape for the future.”

Smith says that salvage logging -- followed by replanting -- helps restore forest health. He says it’s important for fire safety, too.

“Less salvage means more dead and dying trees and snags that not only fuel the next big fire but also put firefighters in danger the next time they need to go in there and put out a fire,” he says.

The Oregon Society of American Foresters says post-fire logging can foster “timely development of desirable forest conditions.”

Still, in the Environmental Assessment for the Chetco Bar salvage project, Forest Service officials don’t claim any forest health or fire safety benefits. According to project coordinator Jessie Berner …

“We are trying to capture the value of those trees to try to recoup some of the economic value of that timber in support of our local communities.”

Salvage logging can definitely have economic benefit. But the scientific evidence that it leads to healthier forests is thin … Jerry Franklin is professor emeritus of ecosystem analysis at the University of Washington.

“I’m not aware of any science that supports the notion that salvage logging contributes significantly to ecological values, ecological recovery,” he says.

Franklin is a leading authority on sustainable forest management and was a major architect of the Northwest Forest Plan. His decades of research have led him to conclude that healthy forest ecology is usually served by leaving burned trees unsalvaged.

“The best thing to do generally is to allow it to develop following the kind of natural processes that have been going on for thousands of years,” he says.

Franklin is among a growing cohort of scientists that says logging dead trees from burned forests usually does more harm than good in the long run. That woody material provides habitat for dozens of types of organisms. If you remove it, he says …

“There isn’t going to be any additional available to provide that kind of habitat until that forest is 100 to 120 years old.”

As far as fire danger goes, Franklin says, replanting thousands of seedlings creates a stand of identical small trees that’s more likely to fuel a future fire than a complex burned forest is.

“There is no question that the plantations are more fire prone than areas that are allowed to develop more naturally,” he says.

For his part, Curry County Commissioner Court Boice isn’t buying it.

“Now, when it comes to science, “ he says, “you come to my office and I can show you matching science, page for page, author by author, that will show you that we’ve been sold something that is at least very debatable.”

The Chetco Bar fire burned in the “mosaic” pattern typical of Northwest forests; it has some severely burned areas mixed in with others that are lightly burned. Some areas aren’t burned at all. But Boice says when he stands on a ridge, overlooking miles of scorched forest …

“It’s really difficult to give full credibility to the notion that this is going to come back fine.”

The Forest Service expects to issue a final decision on the Chetco Bar salvage project this month. Separate salvage sales of roadside and hazard trees have already been approved under a legal exemption, with a total of 13 million board feet expected to be sold by mid-June.