Fuel for the Fire 

“Differing sciences” weigh in on the feds’ Bitterroot forest plan

A recent report published by the Forest Service says there is no evidence to suggest that logging in burned areas reduces the risk of future fires. Yet the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) still proposes to log as much as 280 million board feet of timber on forested lands that burned last summer, in part to reduce the threat of more fires.

BNF district ranger Craig Bobzien released a massive draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) last week detailing the Forest Service plan for addressing the 356,000 acres of federal, state and private land that burned.

The BNF proposes four alternatives, plus a no-action option, for restoring the health of the burned land. The alternatives discuss the need for “fuel reduction”—a Forest Service expression for logging of dead and green trees to minimize fire danger—on anywhere from 22,571 acres to 79,221 acres. One alternative calls for no logging at all, but all call for reforestation to varying degrees.

Though there is no preferred alternative, BNF supervisor Rodd Richardson is leaning toward something between Alternative D, which calls for logging on 79,221 acres, reforesting of 36,350 acres and “using temporary roads in some locations to improve economics,” and Alternative E, which would allow logging on 22,571 acres in the urban interface only, and reforesting of 22,981 acres.

The goal, says Bobzien, is to reduce the fuel loads on the national forest to something closer to “historic levels.” In lower elevations, close to homes, fuel loads have historically averaged between five and 15 tons of debris per acre. Decades of firefighting and last summer’s fires combined to increase that load dramatically in some places, and Forest Service officials fear that build-up could, someday, go up in catastrophic flames, endangering lives and property.

But is that a realistic fear? On the face of it, it seems that dead, jackstrawed trees do pose an obvious fire hazard. Surprisingly, however, there is no evidence to support that contention. But there is evidence demonstrating that post-fire logging can harm forest health by degrading water, soil and fisheries, reducing cover and forage for mammals and introducing weeds.

The public debate over the pros and cons of post-fire logging heated up in the mid-1990s, when Congress approved the “salvage rider” (which was attached to the Oklahoma City Disaster and Assistance Recessions Act of 1995), directing federal land managers to speed up the harvest of dead trees.

In January 2000, the Forest Service published a review of existing findings titled “Environmental Effects of Postfire Logging.” The report reviewed the few studies there are on the subject to determine how post-fire logging affected land, water, flora and fauna in burned areas around the country and the world. The review found that, generally speaking, post-fire logging has little or no ecological benefit, but is typically driven by economic concerns and social pressures.

Worldwide there are only 21 studies examining the environmental effects of post-fire logging, but of those only seven contained the necessary ingredients for carrying out proper scientific study, namely, the lands in questions had unlogged controls as a comparison, and the studies were replicated in subsequent experiments.

Logging can greatly disturb the soil by increasing erosion and sediment. But it might also actually help the soils that burned hot enough to become sterilized and water-repellent. Some evidence suggests that heavy logging equipment can break up these water-repellent soils, which would allow water to seep into the ground, rather than run off into the creeks.

The type of logging also has an effect on the forest, with ground-based skidding causing the most erosion, followed by skidding over snow, skyline and helicopter logging. Bobzien says most of the logging will be done by helicopter or, on gentle slopes, by ground-based equipment over snow and ice to reduce soil erosion.

Existing studies suggest that post-fire logging enhances habitat for some species, and diminishes it for others. And while it changes the composition of species, it doesn’t result in species richness.

Removal of standing dead timber is commonly thought to reduce the intensity of a “reburn,” but no studies documenting that claim could be found, according to the review’s editors.

Bobzien says the lack of studies is simply that—a lack of studies. Last summer’s fires—and the ones to come—differ from historic fire patterns in that fires are burning hotter at lower elevations because of fuel build-up. That historic change alarms federal land managers who, in this case, propose logging and thinning as a countermeasure. “If it isn’t out there, it isn’t out there,“ Bobzien says of the lack of post-fire logging studies. “The chance of reburn is pretty clear,” he says.

Regardless of the lack of studies on post-fire logging, or of the existing information suggesting prudence and caution, the policy on federal lands has been to harvest burned trees to recoup their economic value. Land managers have a tendency towards active management following a fire, and view salvage logging as a tool to return the forest to a “desired condition,“ rather than as an activity that can do more harm.

The public encourages that tendency toward action, especially in the Bitterroot, where a huge majority of survey respondents said they wanted to see active, post-fire forest management.

Bobzien says the post-fire report was read and considered before the draft EIS was written. “What we tried to look at was all the differing sciences out there,” he says. But science can often yield conflicting results.

Public comment on the draft EIS will be taken until July 16. The final decision will be made in September.

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