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Post-fire logging: Facts beyond the smokescreen

After the active fire season of 2017, residents, scientists and land managers throughout Southern Oregon and Northern California have been debating the purported benefits and environmental impacts of post-fire logging. Many in the timber industry and land management agencies claim that post-fire or “salvage” logging and artificial reforestation (i.e. tree planting) will reduce future fire severity and accelerate the regeneration of conifer forests on burned sites.

In reality, our forests are adapted to mixed-severity fire, including some high-severity fire effects. These forests have evolved to regenerate with abundance following high-severity fires, and the post-fire landscape provides particularly high levels of biodiversity.

The dead, standing, fire-killed trees provide important wildlife habitat and, structural complexity, and after falling to the forest floor they build soil, provide microclimates for regenerating forests and retain significant amounts of water through our dry Mediterranean summers. Research conducted after the 1987 Galice fire on the Rogue River showed that downed logs stored 25 times more moisture than forest soils, even following high-severity fire and extended droughts. The same research identifies the downed wood created by fire-killed trees as a “requisite for maintaining long-term forest growth.”

Following the 2002 Biscuit fire, scientists found that post-fire logging hindered conifer regeneration by damaging soils, destroying natural regeneration and removing standing snags that aid forest establishment.

Research conducted following the 1987 Silver fire on the Illinois River, the 1987 fires on the Klamath River, the 2002 Biscuit fire west of Cave Junction and the 2013 Douglas fire outside Merlin demonstrate that tree plantations and plantation-like stands burn at elevated levels of fire severity. In some cases, plantations supported over twice as much stand-replacing fire as adjacent unmanaged, natural stands.

It has been proven that reburn severity in future fires is more closely associated with the structure of post-fire regeneration than residual downed wood from fire-killed snags. In fact, the largest swath of stand-replacing fire in the 2017 Abney fire, south of Applegate Reservoir, burned in plantation stands on the southern slopes of the Siskiyou crest that had been previously “salvage” logged. Forest managers are now proposing to recreate these very same conditions, setting the stage for future high-severity fire effects.

Across the region, public land managers are proposing clearcut post-fire logging and artificial reforestation in recent wildfire areas. The logging would include the removal of fire-killed snags and living green trees that timber managers suspect will die within three to five years. The projects will also include the creation of vast plantation-like stands on important public lands.

Much of the public debate has surrounded the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project outside Brookings in the Chetco River Watershed. The Chetco River is exceptional for its water quality, river recreation, biodiversity and incredible fisheries. These resources will be threatened by post-fire logging on sensitive, fire-affected soils, where 13.5 miles of new road and logging over 4,000 acres in important salmon and steelhead streams has been proposed.

A similar project has also been proposed near Cook and Green Pass in the 2017 Abney fire footprint, part of the Miller Complex. The Klamath National Forest has proposed to clearcut over 1,200 acres of fire-affected forest in two large old-growth reserves and one of the wildest and most diverse portions of the Siskiyou Crest. The region is well-loved by many Southern Oregon residents for backcountry recreation, hiking, botanizing, bird-watching and other outdoor activities. Situated along the Pacific Crest Trail near the Red Buttes Wilderness and in between two large roadless areas, the area is extremely important for habitat connectivity and contains a spectacularly rugged beauty important to many in our region.

Rather than restoring forest ecosystems and reducing the potential for stand-replacing fire, the post-fire logging proposed across our region will degrade important watersheds, increase fire risks and hinder forest regeneration. According to pre-eminent forest ecologist Professor Jerry Franklin, “Conflicts often exist between economic and ecological objectives as timber salvage is generally about recovering economic values rather than enhancing ecological recovery.”

Don’t be fooled by the smokescreen. Post-fire logging is simply an excuse to clearcut public forests. It provides no benefit to our environment and will increase the severity of future fires.

Luke Ruediger is conservation director of the Siskiyou Field Office of the Klamath Forest Alliance.