Burned Tree Logging: Economics Disguised as Safety

By Caroline Griffith 


Though the intensity and frequency of wildfires has increased due to climate change and past forest-management decisions, fire has always been a part of the landscape. Post-fire landscapes are important to biodiversity and historically covered much larger areas than they do today. Though they are becoming more and more frequent, fire events are natural and biologically important to the species that rely on them for habitat and food. In fact, fire suppression and exclusion may be contributing factors in the increasing intensity of wildfires. The August Complex Fire of 2020 burned a total of 1,032,648 acres of land, approximately 915,00 of which were in National Forests. As the Mendocino, Six Rivers and Shasta-Trinity National Forests start to formulate their response to the devastating August Complex Fire post-fire, or salvage, logging will most likely play a part in this response.

Six Rivers National Forest, Mad River Ranger District “Emergency” logging. Notice the steep skid trail and left over slash. Photo by Kimberly Baker

Salvage logging has historically been about recouping the monetary value of burned trees to pay for replanting (or what is now called restoration) and support timber economies in rural areas, but now it is also being sold as a way to reduce fuels and prevent the next catastrophic fire, a hypothesis which has yet to be proven and seems to largely depend on how those trees are removed. Some evidence shows that salvage logging without follow-up prescribed burns can actually concentrate surface fuels and increase the likelihood of future fires.

Post-fire logging involves removing dead, or projected to be dead, standing trees (snags) and “hazard” trees (those close to roads or public improvements which may pose a danger to humans when they fall), all of which have ecological and habitat value. Some of the well-documented results of post-fire logging include: 

  • increased sedimentation in rivers and streams, which directly harms juvenile salmon and stream habitats; 
  • soil compaction from logging operations, which can reduce regeneration of native vegetation thereby facilitating regeneration of non-native (invasive) vegetation;
  • loss of habitat for cavity-nesting bird species like the endangered Northern Spotted Owl; 
  • and increased road construction which can lead to landslides and can have a negative effect on wildlife populations. 

In regards to spotted owls, a study by wildlife biologists Monica Bond and Chad Hanson found that spotted owl occupancy declined from 79% down to 23% in sites in which more than 5% of the area within a 1500-meter radius from territory centers had been subjected to post-fire logging (Hanson et al. 2018). The Draft Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl states, “retention of all 20-inch DBH (Diameter at Breast Height) snags should be a starting point.” Further research by Bond has shown that Spotted Owls in Northern California returned to four sites where the majority of their territory had burned, showing that snag retention can provide a basis for forest regeneration that supports nesting, foraging and roosting. Though salvage logging obviously has an economic benefit, the ecological harm of removing these trees, which provide habitat for years before breaking down and helping rebuild the soil, counters that benefit.

As Richard Hutto said in his report, Toward Meaningful Snag-Management Guidelines for Postfire Salvage Logging in North American Conifer Forests, “I am hard pressed to find any other example in wildlife biology where the effect of a particular land-use activity is as close to 100% negative as the typical postfire salvage-logging operation tends to be.”

The challenge now before these agencies is to balance the public safety aspect with the science and to come up with response plans that benefit forest health (and, therefore, human and animal health) in the long-term. These response plans must take into account the ecological and habitat values of the trees, not just the monetary value. So far, it seems that the Six Rivers National Forest is taking some additional precautions that other forests are not, such as not entering riparian zones and taking trees that are completely dead and taking one known spotted owl nesting grove off the table for logging. Whether they maintain this approach with recovery proposals that are due out later this summer remains to be seen. And, of course, this doesn’t cancel out the devastation that was caused by the so-called emergency action described by Kimberly Baker.

These public lands are home to designated and proposed Wild and Scenic Rivers and federally listed endangered species. Their value is much more than monetary and the way we respond to wildfires, both in terms of fire suppression efforts and post-fire response, can have significant impacts on recovery and the impact of future fires. It’s time to take the long view and manage them for future generations, not just the profit and comfort of this one. In order to do that, any proposed post-fire logging projects need to be subject to a public review process and include consultation with local tribes.

Modern Firefighting by Joel Mielke