After disaster: Salvage or savage logging?

Opposing views on the value of timber harvests after natural disasters

Jane Brissett | Contributing Writer

Published July 1, 2002  | July 2002 issue

After spectacular wildfires two years ago left behind hundreds of thousands of charred acres in the Bitterroot National Forest in western Montana, one might not think there's much of value left behind.

But, in fact, there is a lot of value in the blackened and burned trees—enough to go to court over, because two opposing sides see very different value in those trees. A logger sees wood that can be salvaged and sold as well as an opportunity to help clean out the forest to help it quickly become a place where trees grow again. An environmentalist sees the value in the trees' ability to hold the soil, eventually decay, nourish the soil and help the forest renew in its own time.

Each view has vocal supporters, especially in the Bitterroot. The U.S. Forest Service, the manager and guardian of the forest, listened to those points while coming up with a post-fire management plan and decided to let many burned acres stand untouched but allow loggers to salvage wood in some areas.

On the way up to one Bitterroot timber sale area, "you can see thousands and thousands of burned acres where there will never be any [logging] activity," said Gordy Sanders of Pyramid Mountain Lumber, based in Seeley Lake, Mont. His company is salvaging trees from selected burned areas of the Bitterroot.

The decision to allow salvage logging continues a vigorous public debate in Montana—and throughout the nation—about how national forests are managed. The Forest Service typically allows some salvage logging after disasters—only in nonwilderness areas—on the belief that pinpointed harvests will help prevent future secondary fires fueled by the dead trees, grass and brush. Those blazes could burn more intensely than the original fires and threaten additional lives, officials say.

Environmentalists didn't agree in the case of the Bitterroot, and the matter was taken to court, a common occurrence for timber harvests in national forests.

Economy vs. ecology

Fires burned 307,000 acres of land in the Bitterroot National Forest, about 20 percent of its 1.6 million acres. The Forest Service originally proposed salvage logging on a little less than one-quarter of the burned area. But public opposition, court battles and other factors will likely cut the final harvest to less than 5 percent of the burned acreage.

The Forest Service first set the salvage logging area at 73,000 acres. But after strong public outcry over the proposal, it cut the figure to 41,000 acres, with an expected yield of about 176 million board feet of sawtimber (a board foot is a one-foot square of wood that is one-inch thick). Environmentalists were still not happy and took the matter to court, where a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the modified plan needed public comment, saying the Forest Service made an "extra legal effort to circumvent the law," and only certain portions of the forest could be logged immediately.

That ruling "temporarily" reduced the salvage logging acreage to 14,000, but the time sensitivity of salvage logging likely means that will be the total harvest. To begin with, the value of the damaged trees is lower and expenses are higher than logging green trees. Fallen or burned trees have a harvest window of about two years before the wood becomes commercially useless. The Bitterroot trees, mostly ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, tend to attract bark beetles or blue-stain fungus (which literally turns the wood blue).

The court order was issued in January 2002, leaving little time to harvest even the 14,000 acres that were approved. In a March interview, Spike Thompson, acting supervisor of the Bitterroot National Forest, said, "The reality is that this is the second winter after the fire and the values are dwindling to where it may not be economically feasible to do those projects."

That suits environmentalists just fine; they say the heavy logging equipment causes further damage to the forest. They also charge that timber management seems to have a higher priority for the Forest Service than preservation because it brings in money and helps the agency grow.

According to Larry Campbell, executive director of Friends of the Bitterroot, one of the plaintiffs in the salvage lawsuit, the Forest Service wants to take too much out of the ecosystem. Even pared down to 14,000 acres, the expected yield of 60 million board feet would be about six times larger than the forest's annual harvest. Campbell noted that forests have burned and regenerated for thousands of years without people taking away the damaged trees. "We don't need it," Campbell said. "There's no ecological need for salvage logging."

Still, logging in the Bitterroot region is and has been the livelihood for generations of families, and even more are employed in the wood products manufacturing business in the forest's Ravalli County home. More than 10 percent of the county's 7,800 workers work in the timber and wood products industry.

Salvage logging, often accompanied by other recovery efforts such as planting and reseeding, also pushes nature to recover more quickly, with different kinds of vegetation, than if left alone, supporters of active management say. It will benefit both the forest's health and the local economy, creating employment opportunities in rural communities by providing raw material for wood product manufacturers, they say.

Pyramid Lumber had a contract to log the property before the fire, but the amount the company paid the Forest Service to cut the trees post-fire has been substantially reduced, Sanders said. He added that loggers want to help the forest. "What we've maintained in the industry is the sooner they can get on with the recovery the sooner we can have healthy forests."

Anyone got a match?

Today, the Forest Service is moving toward less-intrusive management but the consequences of past actions linger.

Two key pieces of legislation have guided the Forest Service's management parameters. The Organic Act of 1897 provided a strategy to balance forest preservation with its use (including harvesting) by the nation's citizens. The Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 expanded uses, some of which were later added. Multiple use is defined as management of renewable resources to best meet the public's needs.

Years of "fire suppression" policy have left many forests dense with wood that's dry and dead but not completely burned. A lightning strike or careless camper can ignite that natural fuel, which can quickly grow into a conflagration, threatening private property, livestock and human lives.

Salvage logging after a disaster helps prevent that nightmare scenario, Thompson said. By reducing the amount of kindling, so to speak, logged areas can stop a fire from spreading or at least allow it to be contained. Logging is sometimes necessary even before prescribed burns to help keep such planned fires under control. (Bitterroot officials are targeting 3,000 acres for prescribed burns.)

Environmentalists and the Forest Service agree that the residue of suppressed fires has created numerous large fires in Western forests in recent years—not at all like the smaller, often less damaging fires caused by nature.

The nation paid a dear price in 2000 as more than 7 million acres of public land burned in Western states and more than $2 billion was spent to put them out. The Bitterroot fire threatened 1,700 homes and destroyed 70.

"What we're trying to evolve back to is more frequent fires of lower intensity," Thompson said.

But until that happens, salvage logging will be a contentious matter. Environmentalists oppose salvage logging for one basic reason: It interferes with nature's plan. Cutting down a forest doesn't restore it, they argue. Salvage harvesting often creates problems in the long run, such as the disappearance of certain forms of wildlife, erosion and general disruption of the ecosystem.

Dead trees have a place in the ecosystem, holding soil, creating a habitat for small trees and animals, maintaining moisture on the site and recycling nutrients into the soil. "A dead, burned tree out in the forest does almost as much as a green tree," said Campbell of Friends of the Bitterroot.

As evidence of nature's restorative ability, many groups point to Yellowstone National Park, where a million acres burned in 1988. Today it has a thriving ecosystem. A small study after a natural disaster in the Superior National Forest found more birds, as well as a greater variety of them, in unsalvaged areas compared with salvaged areas.

Cashing in, or out?

Leaving commercially sellable trees to rot is a missed economic opportunity, some say. The cost of the entire modified recovery effort—the one that proposed logging 41,000 acres—including salvage logging, replanting, seeding, road restoration and other projects, would have cost the Forest Service at least $20 million—all money spent locally.

But in some cases, the anticipated economic impact has not materialized. The projected impact of the modified Bitterroot plan included about 4,000 jobs and $75 million in compensation that would have multiplied throughout the region. But something else happened in its place. The 14,000 acres of court-approved logging that began last winter does not appear to have created new employment. Instead, it diverted workers from other logging projects.

Some also argue that messing with nature's time-tested recovery path could ultimately be the state's the biggest long-term economic loss, because forested, mountainous landscapes like that of Bitterroot have been a major driver in the strong growth in western Montana. Salvage timber advocates counter by saying that harvesting the burned timber would help regenerate natural areas more quickly (though it does tend to change the vegetative mix), which would help economic growth in the short term.

Some salvage logging more clear-cut

Not all salvage logging efforts are this contentious. On July 4, 1999, millions of trees in the Superior National Forest of northeastern Minnesota were blown down virtually without warning from
90-mile-per-hour straight-line winds and heavy rains. The storm stacked trees 10 or more feet above the ground in some areas, as if the wind had clear cut them.

A total of 477,000 acres were affected in the Superior National Forest, which includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. A salvage logging effort followed on a limited number of acres. But there was no court battle and 67 million board feet were salvaged on federal land. After the initial cleanup of trees that had trapped people, blocked roads and fallen on buildings, the Forest Service proposed and executed salvage timber sales. The harvest was completed last winter.

There is no cookie-cutter plan for restoring national forests after devastating events, despite the existence of policies that apply to all of them. No two situations are alike. In the Bitterroot and Superior, for example, the type of vegetation, weather and constituencies are distinctly different and each must be considered.

Tailoring recovery efforts to residents, users and other interested people is critical, said Thomas Wagner, deputy forest supervisor of the Superior National Forest. There, interested groups were brought to the damaged areas to talk about the plan. Some objection to salvage logging was voiced, he said, but not enough to delay action.

"The Bitterroots took the same approach but they weren't as successful at keeping everyone at the table," said Wagner, who worked in the Montana forest to help share the Superior's blowdown experience. Fights over logging in the Bitterroots date back to the 1960s and scars linger from showdowns over clear cutting in the 1970s.

Superior Forest officials took pains not to make the blowdown a media spectacle, Wagner said, and it didn't attract the attention of national groups in large numbers as the Bitterroot fires did.

Under the logging radar

Curiously, the departments of natural resources in both Montana and Minnesota allowed salvage logging on state lands affected by the disasters and encountered virtually no resistance, according to officials.

In the Bitterroot area, 14,000 acres of state-owned land burned and by March 2002 the logging was nearly complete. About 26 million board feet were harvested, according to Mark Lewing, Hamilton unit manager for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The sales earned $5 million that was put into a state trust fund for schools, Lewing said.

In the Superior, about 2,500 state-owned acres were affected by the 1999 wind storm. About 37,500 cords (roughly 18.5 million board feet) were harvested in the following year and a half, according to Ron Stoffel, assistant regional forester in the Grand Rapids region of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Most of it was used as pulpwood for regional paper mills. Total revenue from salvage timber sales was about $120,000.

Environmental groups offered no resistance to salvage logging after the Minnesota disaster, Stoffel said, perhaps because most of it was in a major tourist area, the Gunflint Trail.

Montana officials kept the public informed and "we had very little negative comment or problems with environmental groups or anything like this," Lewing said.

Federal regulations make it easier to delay timber sales by tying them up in court, Stoffel noted. "States can act more quickly; federal regulations are more stringent."