FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Fire Ecology vs the Timber Economy

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.

More articles by:

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.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
December 06, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Eat an Impeachment
Matthew Hoh
Authorizations for Madness; The Effects and Consequences of Congress’ Endless Permissions for War
Jefferson Morley
Why the Douma Chemical Attack Wasn’t a ‘Managed Massacre’
Andrew Levine
Whatever Happened to the Obama Coalition?
Paul Street
The Dismal Dollar Dems and the Subversion of Democracy
Dave Lindorff
Conviction and Removal Aren’t the Issue; It’s Impeachment of Trump That is Essential
Ron Jacobs
Law Seminar in the Hearing Room: Impeachment Day Six
Linda Pentz Gunter
Why Do We Punish the Peacemakers?
Louis Proyect
Michael Bloomberg and Me
Robert Hunziker
Permafrost Hits a Grim Threshold
Joseph Natoli
What We Must Do
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Global Poison Spring
Robert Fantina
Is Kashmir India’s Palestine?
Charles McKelvey
A Theory of Truth From the South
Walden Bello
How the Battle of Seattle Made the Truth About Globalization True
Evan Jones
BNP Before a French Court
Norman Solomon
Kerry’s Endorsement of Biden Fits: Two Deceptive Supporters of the Iraq War
Torsten Bewernitz – Gabriel Kuhn
Syndicalism for the Twenty-First Century: From Unionism to Class-Struggle Militancy
Matthew Stevenson
Across the Balkans: From Banja Luka to Sarajevo
Thomas Knapp
NATO is a Brain Dead, Obsolete, Rabid Dog. Euthanize It.
Forrest Hylton
Bolivia’s Coup Government: a Far-Right Horror Show
M. G. Piety
A Lesson From the Danes on Immigration
Ellen Isaacs
The Audacity of Hypocrisy
Monika Zgustova
Chernobyl, Lies and Messianism in Russia
Manuel García, Jr.
From Caesar’s Last Breath to Ours
Binoy Kampmark
Going to the ICJ: Myanmar, Genocide and Aung San Suu Kyi’s Gamble
Jill Richardson
Marijuana and the Myth of the “Gateway Drug”
Muzamil Bhat
Srinagar’s Shikaras: Still Waters Run Deep Losses
Gaither Stewart
War and Betrayal: Change and Transformation
Farzana Versey
What Religion is Your Nationalism?
Clark T. Scott
The Focus on Trump Reveals the Democrat Model
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Do Bernie’s Supporters Know What “Not Me, Us” Means? Does Bernie?
Peter Harley
Aldo Leopold, Revisited
Winslow Myers
A Presidential Speech the World Needs to Hear
Christopher Brauchli
The Chosen One
Jim Britell
Misconceptions About Lobbying Representatives and Agencies
Ted Rall
Trump Gets Away with Stuff Because He Does
Mel Gurtov
Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the Insecurity of China’s Leadership
Nicky Reid
Dennis Kucinich, Tulsi Gabbard and the Slow Death of the Democratic Delusion
Tom H. Hastings
Cross-Generational Power to Change
John Kendall Hawkins
1619: The Mighty Whitey Arrives
Julian Rose
Why I Don’t Have a Mobile Phone
David Yearsley
Parasitic Sounds
Elliot Sperber
Class War is Chemical War
December 05, 2019
Colin Todhunter
Don’t Look, Don’t See: Time for Honest Media Reporting on Impacts of Pesticides
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail