FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Fire Ecology vs the Timber Economy

by

With the California drought continuing and the Sierra Nevada snowpack limited to a foreboding 18 percent this winter, the mountain communities remain on edge. Of course, last year’s Rim Fire, ignited by a hunter’s illegal campfire in mid-August, was the biggest to hit the Sierra in more than a century of record keeping. It burned for more than two months, spreading over 154,430 acres of chaparral and timberland in the Stanislaus National Forest, about 24,000 acres of private land and roughly 77,000 acres in neighboring Yosemite National Park.

On the plus side, Yosemite remains open for the 37 million people who visit every year, with the majority of its spectacular granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, Giant Sequoia groves, and biological diversity unscathed. Moreover, thousands of acres affected from the fire have been reopened already, including trails through Hetch Hetchy and the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias.

Wildfires, Climate Change and Mountain Ecology

Climate change is increasing the increasing frequency and intensity of expansive, wildland fires in a warming and drying world. In fact, this year’s broiling temperatures and almost non-existent precipitation have created a tinder-box out of the west, and the scale of the blazes, like the Rim Fire, is changing the landscape, as wildlife and plants struggle to adapt.  Yet, fire has always been an important aspect of forest ecology, and one of its biggest challenges is how institutions and managers react in its aftermath.

Wildfires can promote ecosystem health and survival of many plant and wildlife communities, despite the intense heat and scale of the blazes. According to a recent article by three scientists specializing in fire ecology, large conflagrations create the best habitat. In fact, the ecosystem depends upon them.

Essentially, the Rim fire created 50,000 acres of what is known as complex early seral forest habitat, a rare and critically important post-fire landscape, with some of the highest levels of species diversity in the Sierra Nevada.

Wood-boring beetles arrive first to the standing dead trees (snags), which attract the rare and imperiled Black-backed woodpeckers, followed by cavity-nesting birds and wildlife. Various shrubs and trees have evolved the ability re-sprout from their burned roots and trunks, and some have seeds that germinate best only after intense fire. Many fire-following shrubs like Ceanothus fix nitrogen in soils, allowing nitrogen-hungry conifers and other plants to flourish during natural regeneration. Even the iconic Spotted Owl, synonymous with old-growth forests, takes advantage of burned forests to hunt for gophers and woodrats.

The naturally regenerated complex early seral habitat areas are more resilient to climate disruption than those logged or artificially replanted. Yet, decades of fire suppression and post-fire logging have made scarce or decimated this most important habitat.

Salvage Logging in the Stanislaus: Fire Means Profit

Unfortunately for the mountains, logging is proposed as a solution to future fire risk, called fuel reduction and salvage logging. In fact, the Forest Service recently issued a “recovery and rehabilitation” proposal that includes logging approximately 30,000 acres of the roughly 103,000 acres of Stanislaus timberland burned, in areas where public safety is not an issue. If approved, it could yield more lumber than the combined annual output of all the national forests in the state. It would open up about a fifth of the National Forest’s burned acres to the road building, machinery, and soil compaction that industrial logging brings with it.

So-called “fuels” are trees and shrubs that stabilize soils and provide shelter and food for a host of forest-dwelling creatures. Because climate and weather drive fire behavior and frequency, logging trees and clearing shrubs in “fuels reduction” does little to influence the behavior of large fires during extreme weather events. Science does not support this policy, but the US Forest Service has a substantial interest in harvesting National Forest timber, also benefitting from hundreds of millions of dollars in annual taxpayer subsidies for fuel reduction programs.

Moreover, salvage harvests often focus on more economically attractive large old growth standing trees, some of which have survived the fires that prompt the harvests and ordinarily would be protected. Smaller-diameter trees are often left behind in “slash piles” that increase the risk of later fires.

A recent study by the Center for Biological Diversity and the John Muir Project recommended rather than industrial scale salvage logging, post-fire management should focus on activities that benefit forest health, water quality and the many species that depend upon fire for their very existence.

Unfortunately, several local environmental groups have formed a coalition in support of the salvage logging plan. It is also supported by US Rep. Tom McClintock, whose district covers Tuolumne County, and who introduced a bill to exempt the plan from the usual environmental review. This ill-conceived move would shut down the voice of the 200 scientists who wrote Congress opposing the salvage logging plan.

John Buckley, executive director of one of those supporting environmental groups (Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center), said: “It is far more logical to have the industry remove dead trees with a return for taxpayers than to let the wood deteriorate so it loses saw log value. In that case, taxpayers would end up having to pay huge amounts of money to remove the dead wood to reduce unsafe fuel levels. Delay makes no sense.”

Yet Buckley to his credit expressed several concerns in an LA Times report, including opposition to plans to build permanent new roads in the burn area, including a segment that would punch into a wild portion of the Clavey River canyon that he said harbors one of the last surviving blocks of low-elevation, old-growth trees in the Stanislaus.

He worried that logging 1,300 steep acres using a cable system — in which logs are suspended from cables and hauled to roads — would accelerate erosion. And he questioned whether the Forest Service would leave enough large, dead trees that birds and other wildlife use for nesting and foraging. “It just doesn’t make sense to debate salvage logging in sensitive areas or to build controversial new roads when there are hundreds of millions of board feet of salvage trees that can be logged on noncontroversial sites,” Buckley said.

Though the Environmental Assessment for salvage logging along the region’s highways has already been approved, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Rim Fire Recovery Plan comment period ends on June 16 and can be accessed here. The plan is not expected to move forward until at least August of this year.

Jack Eidt (jack dot eidt at wilderutopia dot com), Founder and Publisher of WilderUtopia, is a novelisturban plannerand environmental advocate. In addition to writing regular articles forWilderUtopia, he has published opinion/editorials in various periodicals, including the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, Voice of OC, LA Progressive, CityWatch LA, Win:Win Journal, andCounterPunch, and has been featured on Pacifica Radio, NPR, and local public television.

Jack Eidt is publisher of WilderUtopia, and serves on the Steering Committee of SoCal 350 Climate Action, a Los Angeles affiliate of the international climate change organization 350.org.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
April 28, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Slandering Populism: a Chilling Media Habit
Andrew Levine
Why I Fear and Loathe Trump Even More Now Than On Election Day
Jeffrey St. Clair
Mountain of Tears: the Vanishing Glaciers of the Pacific Northwest
Philippe Marlière
The Neoliberal or the Fascist? What Should French Progressives Do?
Conn Hallinan
America’s New Nuclear Missile Endangers the World
Peter Linebaugh
Omnia Sunt Communia: May Day 2017
Vijay Prashad
Reckless in the White House
Brian Cloughley
Who Benefits From Prolonged Warfare?
Kathy Kelly
The Shame of Killing Innocent People
Ron Jacobs
Hate Speech as Free Speech: How Does That Work, Exactly?
Andre Vltchek
Middle Eastern Surgeon Speaks About “Ecology of War”
Matt Rubenstein
Which Witch Hunt? Liberal Disanalogies
Sami Awad - Yoav Litvin - Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
Never Give Up: Nonviolent Civilian Resistance, Healing and Active Hope in the Holyland
Pete Dolack
Tribunal Finds Monsanto an Abuser of Human Rights and Environment
Christopher Ketcham
The Coyote Hunt
Mike Whitney
Putin’s New World Order
Ramzy Baroud
Palestinian, Jewish Voices Must Jointly Challenge Israel’s Past
Ralph Nader
Trump’s 100 Days of Rage and Rapacity
Harvey Wasserman
Marine Le Pen Is a Fascist—Not a ‘Right-Wing Populist,’ Which Is a Contradiction in Terms
William Hawes
World War Whatever
John Stanton
War With North Korea: No Joke
Jim Goodman
NAFTA Needs to be Replaced, Not Renegotiated
Murray Dobbin
What is the Antidote to Trumpism?
Louis Proyect
Left Power in an Age of Capitalist Decay
Medea Benjamin
Women Beware: Saudi Arabia Charged with Shaping Global Standards for Women’s Equality
Rev. William Alberts
Selling Spiritual Care
Peter Lee
Invasion of the Pretty People, Kamala Harris Edition
Cal Winslow
A Special Obscenity: “Guernica” Today
Binoy Kampmark
Turkey’s Kurdish Agenda
Guillermo R. Gil
The Senator Visits Río Piedras
Jeff Mackler
Mumia Abu-Jamal Fights for a New Trial and Freedom 
Cesar Chelala
The Responsibility of Rich Countries in Yemen’s Crisis
Leslie Watson Malachi
Women’s Health is on the Chopping Block, Again
Basav Sen
The Coal Industry is a Job Killer
Judith Bello
Rojava, a Popular Imperial Project
Robert Koehler
A Public Plan for Peace
Sam Pizzigati
The Insider Who Blew the Whistle on Corporate Greed
Nyla Ali Khan
There Has to be a Way Out of the Labyrinth
Rivera Sun
Blind Slogans and Shallow Greatness
Michael J. Sainato
Trump Scales Back Antiquities Act, Which Helped to Create National Parks
Stu Harrison
Under Duterte, Filipino Youth Struggle for Real Change
Martin Billheimer
Balm for Goat’s Milk
Stephen Martin
Spooky Cookies and Algorithmic Steps Dystopian
Michael Doliner
Thank You Note
Charles R. Larson
Review: Gregor Hens’ “Nicotine”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail