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Logging for dollars in national forests
By Chad Hanson -- Special to The Bee
Published 5:30 AM PST Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2001

As the number of spotted owls and Pacific fishers continues to decline in California, the U.S. Forest Service and the timber industry are refusing to protect suitable old forest habitat for these imperiled species. Instead, they try to manipulate the public's misunderstanding of post-fire ecology to support massive logging in old-growth forests on thousands of acres of the people's lands throughout California.

In August 1999, lightning ignited a fire in the national Trinity Alps Wilderness Area in Northern California. The blaze spread west to Six Rivers National Forest, and eventually thousands of acres of U.S. forest burned, including suitable habitat for the spotted owl and the mink-like Pacific fisher. Loggers want to remove charred trees from 860 of those acres. They say that would prevent a bigger fire -- a reburn -- and that a burned forest must be heavily thinned or even clear-cut for restoration. Both ideas are weak speculation pushed as hard science to sell ambitious plans by private industry to log public old-growth forests.

The Forest Service itself has conducted an exhaustive review of all existing scientific literature on the subject of reburn and "found no studies documenting a reduction in fire intensity in a stand that had previously been logged" (McIver and Starr, "Environmental Effects of Post-Fire Logging," 2000, www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/gtr486.pdf).

Another group of scientists, led by Robert L. Beschta, professor of forestry at the University of Oregon, issued a study in 1995 (Beschta et al., "Wildfire and Salvage Logging") that concluded there is "no evidence supporting the contention that leaving large dead wood material significantly increases the probability of reburn."

The second argument -- the clear-cut-for-restoration theory -- is absurd. To the contrary, the Beschta report concluded "there is little reason to believe that post-fire salvage logging has any positive ecological benefits. ... There is considerable evidence that persistent, significant adverse environmental impacts are likely to result from salvage logging." In its pro-logging arguments, the Forest Service ignores decades of scientific research about the natural, rejuvenating role of fire in western forest ecology, as well as the importance of burned trees for wildlife habitat.

Several other large post-fire logging plans are in the early stages for old-growth in the Plumas and Tahoe national forests. Ironically, these projects could actually increase the likelihood of severe fires by removing many large trees that aren't really dead, thus reducing the forest canopy and creating hotter, drier conditions on the ground. Most telling, the Forest Service never explains how replacing old-growth forests with tree plantations fits any credible definition of ecological "restoration."

Let's face it: "Salvaging" in our national forests is an excuse to log huge tracks of otherwise off-limits old-growth trees. The timber industry and the Forest Service want to log these areas because there live the most economically valuable trees. The Forest Service keeps the vast majority of timber sale revenues, which gives it a perverse incentive to do more cutting. It has developed a huge bureaucracy around the selling of timber from national forest land. The federal logging program operates at a net loss to taxpayers of about $1 billion a year, according to the nonpartisan U.S. Congressional Research Service. We do not need to waste taxpayer money destroying our own public lands. After all, less than 2 percent of the wood this nation uses annually comes from national forests. What's more, ending the heavily subsidized federal logging program would make it easier for recycled and nonwood products to compete in the market.

In most of the areas the Forest Service would like to open up, the vast majority of the trees scheduled for removal are alive and well, and providing healthy habitat for threatened species. The timber-sale planning documents conveniently "assume" that the areas experienced a high intensity fire and that most or all of the trees are dead. But in case after case, where environmental activists have inspected the sites, the assumptions are not true.

The Storrie post-fire "restoration" project on the southern end of the Lassen National Forest proposed to remove 69 million board-feet of old-growth timber (enough to fill log trucks end to end stretching from Sacramento to San Francisco). The sale documents claimed the area was so badly burned, it was no longer suitable spotted owl habitat, and proposed removing 50 percent to 100 percent of the trees in areas said to have burned at high intensity. Some colleagues and I walked the proposed sale units and found that most areas either showed no significant signs of burning or were burned mildly with only a few trees killed. The project is now on hold.

If we truly want to achieve ecological restoration on our national forest lands, we must end the federal timber sales program and replace it with a true ecological restoration jobs program, as HR 1494, the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, would do. Until then, we will continue to see the same destructive logging practices in increasingly creative disguises.

About the Reporter
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Chad Hanson is the executive director of the John Muir Project and is a
national director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached at (530)273-9290 or at chadhanson@juno.com. Web site: www.johnmuirproject.org.