Post-Fire Westerman Bill: a Clearcutter’s Dream

Old growth trees are marked for post-fire logging in the Klamath National Forest. Photo: Cooper Rodgers
Old growth trees are marked for post-fire logging in the Klamath National Forest. Photo: Cooper Rodgers

Big timber players and their political allies are again exploiting forest fires to promote clearcutting. The inevitable wildfires in fire country could encourage us to better prepare communities and ecosystems for future fires. ey could prompt us to discuss what climate change means with regard to how fires behave and where homes should be built. We could be studying the effects of fire on forests and use those findings to guide our way forward after one hundred years of fire exclusion in fire-dependent ecosystems.

Instead, fire is used as an excuse to clearcut remote forests in the backcountry, unravel our bedrock environmental safeguards, and hand over the keys to our public lands to those who want to make a fast buck.

Perhaps the most extreme anti-forest piece of legislation in decades, the so-called “Westerman Bill” (H.R. 2936), would eliminate forest protections on public lands across the board while promoting clearcutting under the guise of forest health and fire prevention. While the legislation never actually mentions the word “clearcutting,” Section 112(b) of the bill would eliminate environmental review for post-fire salvaging logging clearcuts up to 10,000 acres in size and would allow the Forest Service to waive streamside protection buffers.

Similarly, the Westerman Bill allows for “forest management projects” up to 10,000 acres for “creation of early successional habitat for wildlife.” While that may sound good, in this instance “early successional habitat creation” is timber industry speak for clearcutting. So much for habitat.

In order to push through such drastic anti-forest policies, the Westerman Bill would allow the Forest Service to avoid judicial review of its clearcutting plans. The bill eliminates the fundamental checks and balances of public lands management by allowing federal timber planners to select 90 projects a year that would be exempt from legal challenge and that would instead be subject to a stacked “arbitration” process. Further, even if courts were to hear a challenge to illegal post- fire clearcutting, Section 203 of the legislation would prohibit the judge from halting the clearcutting while the case is heard, allowing trees to be logged before logging could be halted.

The good news, if there is any, is that cooler heads in the U.S. Senate will hopefully prevail, preventing the Westerman clearcutting bill in its current form from becoming law. But as the 2016 election proved, anything can (and often does) happen in politics.

Timber Industry Says Clearcut – Klamath National Forest Asks “How Much?”

The 2017 Abney Fire (part of the Miller Complex) in northern California and southern Oregon burned with a mix of low, moderate, and stand-replacing severity—how wildfires have always burned on the Siskiyou Crest. It is this variety and heterogeneity of fire effects that has contributed to the renowned biodiversity and complexity of the Siskiyou forests that contain everything from rare Baker cypress and Baker’s spruce to towering ancient sugar pines and Douglas- firs. It is a forest ecosystem like no other on Earth.

To their credit, Forest Service timber planners in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest on the north side of Cook and Green Pass recognize the ecosystem benefits of recovering post-fire forests and are wisely focusing their activities on removing burned roadside hazard trees while protecting remote recovering backcountry stands.

In contrast, as directed by their leadership in the Yreka California Supervisor’s Office, timber planners on the Klamath National Forest generally see post- fire forests as an opportunity to harvest otherwise protected late-successional forest stands in the backcountry, including old-growth “reserve” forests that are designated as critical habitat for the survival and recovery of northern spotted owls. Worse yet, the forests proposed for clearcutting are on steep unstable slopes in the headwaters of Seiad Creek, a major tributary to the Klamath River.

There is a better way

Unlike timber planners who come and go, the people of the Karuk Tribe have lived with fire in these forests for thousands of years. The Karuk Department of Natural Resources recommends that the Forest Service protect wildlife, watersheds, and fisheries by retaining, rather than clearcutting, post- fire forests in the Seiad Creek headwaters.

Through the “Karuk Alternative,” roadside hazard trees would be removed, fuels around homes and communities would be treated, and prescribed fire would be utilized over time to retain forest conditions that allow for fire to play its natural role in these fire-evolved forests. Let’s hope that the reasonable suggestions of the Karuk Tribe help the Forest Service establish a more sustainable relationship with fire.



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