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Forest Fire Dangers Linger by Mistakes in Aftermath

By James R. Karr and Dominick A. DellaSala

The Missoulian, Missoula, MT. June 9, 2006.

(Knight-Ridder News Service)

Note: This essay, by Drs. Karr and DellSala, clearly describes the arguments FOB and allied organizations made in our efforts to minimize salvage logging on fragile, newly burned forest. We reprint it here so that FOB members and others will clearly understand that our appeals and litigation are not frivolous, as our opponents (and the Forest Service) would have the public believe.

In the aftermath of forest fires, U.S. senators should look before they leap to pass pro-logging legislation such as the measure that recently passed the House. Otherwise they risk damaging the forest's ability to recover. Although logging and replanting may seem like a reasonable way toclean up and restore forests after disturbances like wildland fires, such activities actually slow the recovery of forests and affected streams andwildlife.

Many scientific studies, including a recent study by scientists at Oregon State University and the Forest Service, conclude that forests are damaged rather than restored by logging after a fire. Most plants andanimals in dry western forests are adapted to periodic fires and havebeen responding to them for millennia. They have a remarkable way of recovering - literally rising from the ashes - because they have evolved with and even depend upon fire. Post-fire logging legislation under consideration by the Senate will bind us to land management practices that, perhaps logical in the past, are no longer tenable in the light of recent scientific understanding. Specifically, logging after fires and other natural disturbances impedes regeneration of forest landscapes because it often damages soils; removes or destroys large standing and downed trees essential in forest recovery, including the return of many wildlife species; damages riparian corridors; introduces or spreads invasive species; causes erosion; delivers sediment to streams from logging roads and steep slopes; degrades water quality; and damages populations of many wildlife species.

In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Resources (Nov. 10, 2005), eminent forest ecologist and University of Washington professor Jerry Franklin noted that logging dead trees often has greater negative impacts than logging live trees. He concluded that "timber salvage is most appropriately viewed as a 'tax' on ecological recovery." Post-fire logging can increase fire severity if fire occurs soon after logging by concentrating the slash from logging at or near the ground, building new roads that can lead to more fires, and drying out the forest by logging the largest, fire-resistant trees. And, instead of focusing on community wildfire protection and reducing hazardous fuels in the wildland-urban interface, the House measure creates new incentives to log trees in remote backcountry areas of the forests, miles from communities that need aid. Post-disturbance logging also directly taxes the public. The Forest Service typically sells logs for less than the costs involved in preparing timber sales, replanting and treating logging slash. Recent economic estimates in the wake of Oregon's Biscuit fire of 2002 show that such costs exceeded revenues by more than $9 million because expensive helicopter logging in remote areas was involved and the full costs of logging operations were not considered. Logging advocates are quick to blame this on lengthy planning involved with environmental analysis that they say would be streamlined under proposed legislation. Truth is that post-fire logging seldom pays for itself because of low demand for burned wood and the high costs of logging in remote areas. The agency also delayed the Biscuit project for a full logging season to consider proposals offered by foresters from Oregon State University's School of Forestry. Had the Forest Service stuck with its more modest, original plan to stay out of old-growth reserves and roadless areas and to limit logging to areas along existing roads, logs could have gone to the mills quickly without creating a huge controversy by proposing to log special areas the public wants to see protected. True restoration after forest fires treats the land the way nature would. This means leaving old-growth reserves and roadless areas alone to heal, focusing on restoring water quality damaged by the excessive road network and livestock grazing on public lands, and reducing future fire risks by thinning overly stocked tree plantations. Misguided legislation that focuses on logging will continue to set back recovery of forests and streams after fires while damaging our precious natural resources at considerable public expense. The Senate should reject this unnecessary and harmful legislation.

Printed here with permission of senior author James Karr.

James Karr is a professor at the University of Washington and has published studies on the impacts of post-fire logging on aquatic ecosystems and wildlife. Dominick DellaSala is a forest ecologist for the World Wildlife Fund Klamath-Siskiyou Program. They wrote this for Unified Forest Defense Campaign, a coalition of national and regional forest conservation organizations.

This column was also published in Billings Gazette, June 09, 2006 and Salt Lake Tribune, June 07, 2006 with the headline “Ignoring science is risky business after forest fires"