Salvage logging is a different story on federal forestland

2014-01-10 Ashley Bach

Wildifires are tremendously destructive, with the largest fires burning miles and miles of forestland and sometimes property. For private forest owners, one of their priorities in the wake of the fires is to salvage whatever timber they can. Seattle's Plum Creek Timber Co. is in the process now of salvaging what it can among thousands of acres of the company's forestland that burned in last summer's Lolo Creek Complex of fires in Montana.

Seven thousand acres of Plum Creek land burned in the fires, but the company will only be able to cut 2,000 acres for timber. The rest either burned too hot to be salvaged or was burned light enough to remain untouched. Of the 2,000 acres to be harvested, "the fir and larch trees...will go to Plum Creek’s Evergreen plywood plant. Spruce and pine logs get trucked to the Columbia Falls lumber mill to become 1-inch boards. Stud-quality logs and mulching treetops have been sold to Tricon Timber in St. Regis," according to the Missoulian newspaper.

“Our goal is to wrap up salvage operations by the first of June,” Plum Creek Northwest Regional Vice President Tom Ray said Friday. “We need to get it before the summer heat impacts the standing dead timber. We’re pushing hard to realize all the value we can.”

Unfortunately, salvaging burned timber is not so simple on federal land. Two recent stories demonstrate this difficulty firsthand, and in doing so, show why federal forests around the country are mismanaged and dramatically underharvested.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported on the U.S. Forest Service's plans to salvage 46 square miles of forestland that was burned last summer in the massive Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park.  

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.

Problem is, several environmental groups are opposed to the project, want the forest to be left alone entirely and for the Forest Service to receive no compensation for the burned timber.

"This (project) 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.

In Southwest Oregon, the Douglas Complex fires last summer burned 48,679 acres of forestland. The Roseburg News-Review recently covered Roseburg Forest Products' efforts to salvage 40 million board feet of timber on the company's land. (Incidentally, Plum Creek is also salvaging some of the 7,000 acres it owns that were burned by the fire.)

But the News-Review points out that the federal land burned in the Douglas Complex fires is still untouched. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is plagued by so much red tape that it's unclear when any of the timber will be salvaged. 

The dissimilar approaches are noticeable from atop Rabbit Mountain. Much of (Roseburg Forest Products') land has been logged. Meanwhile, dead trees, both standing and toppled over, cover the BLM land. The difference creates a quilt pattern across the rolling mountains.

The pattern concerns (Phil Adams of Roseburg Forest Products).

RFP plans to spend $6 million over three years to restore its timberlands, including planting 3.2 million seedlings on 8,000 acres. Adams said the investment would be at risk if another fire breaks out among the dead vegetation on BLM land.

“It’s not a finger-pointing thing, but a reality,” Adams said. “Significant areas of large dead trees and young managed stands completely destroyed by the fire on BLM (lands) will turn into snag patches and brush unless aggressive active management similar to our efforts takes place.

“It’s a management quandary when we are investing on lands near a ridge line of dead timber,” he said. “We are good neighbors with the BLM when the forest is green. But when it gets black and bad things happen, it affects both of us equally, and we have to respond equally to be good neighbors.”

The Albany (Ore.) Democrat-Herald read the News-Review story and said the federal delays have to stop.

If you’ve followed the wars over management of our federal forests, you probably can see this next part coming: The process is not going so swiftly on the federal lands scorched by the fires...

Here’s the bottom line: Federal forests that could benefit from some logging are standing idle – and so are people who could desperately use the work. It’s hard to see how this serves either our populace or our forests.