The August Complex Logging Frenzy

by Kimberly Baker

The 2020 August Complex was the largest recorded wildfire in California recent history burning over 1 million acres on the Mendocino, Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers National Forests. During the fire an estimated 740 miles of ridge tops and hillsides were bulldozed to bare earth with trees and vegetation being knocked aside. This includes twenty miles of bulldozed fire lines in three wilderness areas. Multiple sales from trees cut during the fire have been auctioned off. The cost of fire suppression was well over 230 million dollars. The industrial firefighting complex leaves a wake of destruction that often goes unrecognized.

Lawless Logging – What Has Been Done

Soon after the smoke cleared Six Rivers National Forest, Mad River Ranger District declared an “emergency” and went fast to work cutting down fire-affected forests. This happened with: no environmental review; no consideration of how the fire affected wildlife and water quality; no US Fish and Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries, Tribal or Water Quality Control Board consultation; and no public notice or input. Much of the cutting took place on dead end spur roads. Logging decimated nest cores for northern spotted owls and ripped through streams and creeks, leaving a lot of flammable slash in the aftermath. Contractors, namely the Trinity River Lumber Company, were left unattended with little to no oversight. Tree felling stopped on Feb. 1 to account for northern spotted owl breeding and nesting season, but loud heavy equipment continued to operate, including loading and hauling, well into April.

Six Rivers National Forest, Mad River Ranger District “Emergency” logging on dead end spur road 27N34C through the heart of northern spotted owl nest core. Photo by Kimberly Baker

What Is Planned 

In the same Mad River watershed where “emergency” logging took place, just south of Ruth Lake Reservoir, Six Rivers National Forest is looking at a Categorically Excluded (CE) project called the Three Forks. A CE is done with little environmental review and curtails public participation. It is meant for projects that will clearly have no environmental impact. The Three Forks project proposes 139 acres of ground based “salvage” and, under the guise of road maintenance, 23 miles of roadside logging. The project would re-open decommissioned roads. While relatively small, the agency estimates cutting 8 – 10 million board feet. That’s up to 2,000 truckloads!  

In addition, though public scoping has not yet started, Six Rivers is looking to team up with the Shasta-Trinity National Forest on another post-fire logging project on up to 2,500 acres and covering hundreds of miles of roads. 

The Shasta-Trinity National Forest is preparing an environmental analysis for the August Phase 1 timber sale, which is coined as restoration. It proposes approximately 3,500 acres of commercial logging around Forest Glen and the Wild and Scenic South Fork Trinity River corridor, which is impaired under the Clean Water Act. Logging is proposed throughout the Tier 1 key watersheds of Smoky and Prospect Creeks, which are vital in sustaining salmon and steelhead populations. The project is within Late Successional Reserves, Riparian Reserves and matrix land allocations. Much of the area and rivers are in Critical Habitat for the northern spotted owl and coho salmon. The stated purpose is public safety, which includes thirty three miles of roadside hazards, expedited restoration and economics. The project proposes eight miles of “temporary” road construction, an untold number of landings and utilization of closed roads.

Six Rivers National Forest, Mad River Ranger District “Emergency” logging. Photo by Kimberly Baker

The Mendocino National Forest is preparing a CE for up to 250 acres of logging adjacent to the Yolla Bolly-Middle-Eel Wilderness and an Environmental Analysis for the Plaskett-Keller timber sale. The Plaskett-Keller project includes up to approximately 2,000 acres of larger units and 1,000 acres of roadside commercial logging. The stated purpose is for public safety, economic value and reduced fuel loading. The project is within the Wild and Scenic Black Butte River watershed, a key watershed, listed as impaired under the Clean Water Act. There are up to 400 acres of treatments in Riparian Reserves. While the project lies primarily within the matrix land allocation, areas that are recognized for timber harvest, the Mendocino Forest Plan designated this watershed for minimal management, wildlife emphasis and the retention of visual quality.

There are over 10,000 acres at risk. Given the suite of significant issues — the high level of controversy incited by post-fire logging; risk to threatened species and critical habitat; the intensity of impacts on Wild and Scenic River corridors; the uncertainty of risks; and the degree to which the projects may adversely affect cultural resources — full environmental impact statements are appropriate. Better yet, these risks could be avoided by concentrating on removing imminent hazard trees along strategic road systems.

Ecosystem services, such as clean water, and climate mitigation values of these fire-affected forests should be prioritized over the short-term gains to the timber industry. Large swaths of clearcuts along low-use high-risk roads and forest stands are contrary to restoration and recovery. The Forest Service must recognize its responsibility to protect and restore water quality, wildlife and salmon populations.

Be on the lookout for upcoming public comment opportunities.