Why our forests need fire, not salvage logging

Medford Mail Tribune

November 24, 2013

By Dominick A. DellaSala

For over two decades, I have studied forests from Oregon’s amazing coastal rainforests to the fire-adapted forests of the West. In dry forests, there are three issues that reoccur every fire season: (1) forests will burn regardless of what we do; (2) politicians will propose unchecked post-fire “salvage” logging, even in national parks, as a quick fix; and (3) scientists will continue to document the incredible regeneration that takes place after fires and how post-fire logging disrupts forest renewal.

Recently, I submitted a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden and other members of Congress signed by 250 prominent scientists summarizing fire ecology studies from around the globe (www.geosinstitute.org). The letter was especially urgent as Wyden and other legislators are currently drafting legislation to increase logging on public lands in response to wildfires and, for economic reasons, on Bureau of Land Management lands in Western Oregon. In the letter, we compared four common fire myths with the evidence from around the globe.

Myth 1 — Fire is catastrophic, and forests cannot recover by themselves.

As a young forest ecologist, I witnessed firsthand how the media erroneously described the 1988 Yellowstone fires as “destructive.” The same misconceptions led to declaring Oregon’s 2002 Biscuit fire a “moonscape” in need of massive post-fire logging and tree planting. However, after decades of observations, we now know that both fires were ecologically beneficial. Following the fires, the increased plant growth provided forage for deer and elk, dead trees (snags) became habitat for woodpeckers, conifer seedlings released from intense heating of seed cones blanketed ash-covered soils, and there were increases in songbirds, butterflies and morel mushrooms even in the most severely burned areas. This fire-created web of life soon rivaled what we see in the much-celebrated old-growth forests. New forests with their abundant snags will eventually become old-growth, if we let them.

Myth 2 — Post-fire landscapes will become brush fields unless salvage logged and planted with conifers.

Post-fire logging actually slows down forest renewal. Conifer seedlings are crushed as logs are dragged uphill, heavy machinery compacts fragile soils, large snags that shade seedlings are removed for economic value, and invasive weeds are transported by logging machinery, requiring costly measures to remove them, if at all possible.

Myth 3 — Salvage logging reduces fuel hazards and future fire risks.

Most post-fire salvage actually increases fuel hazards. The small twigs and branches left by loggers provide kindling for the next fire while the big charred trees that are least likely to burn again are taken away. Fire risks are also much higher in densely packed tree farms planted over thousands of acres. Witness the shotgun blast pattern of replanted clearcuts the next time you fly over the Siskiyous; fires tend to burn hot and spread rapidly through them.

Myth 4 — Salvage logging is needed to prevent global warming pollution released by burning vegetation.

When a forest burns, it releases carbon dioxide to the air, a greenhouse gas pollutant when in excessive amounts. Surprisingly, forest fires release only about 5 percent to 15 percent of forests’ stored carbon to the atmosphere. This is because the charred trees, if left on-site, continue to retain carbon for decades to centuries, as they slowly decompose. New vegetation also comes in after fire, rapidly capturing and storing carbon while cleansing the air. In contrast, salvage logging emits much larger quantities of carbon dioxide, as logs are hauled over long distances, requiring fossil fuels in transit, and logging slash decomposes rapidly, releasing even more carbon dioxide.

Simply put: Nature has given forests unique properties to rebound even after the most severe fires. Salvage logging takes away what plants and wildlife need most after fire — large dead and live trees — and pollutes waterways from sediment runoff along roads and from logging on steep slopes.

Common ground begins with job-producing thinning of flammable tree plantations and removing flammable vegetation nearest homes. If we must salvage log for economic reasons, it should be limited to removing hazard trees along roads for safety reasons and small trees in areas that were scheduled for logging before a burn.

As Senator Wyden is poised to introduce legislation, we hope that he takes notice of the diverse ecological and economic benefits that Oregon’s forests give to us in addition to their timber. Hillsides covered with old and new forests produce clean air, drinking water, salmon, abundant wildlife and a quality of life that is essential to attracting new businesses and the variety of jobs they are bringing to our region.

Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D., chief scientist of Geos Institute, is author of the award-winning book, “Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation” (http://ipfieldnotes.org/author/dominickdellasala/) and has published dozens of scientific articles on fire ecology.

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