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A Burnt Forest is a Rare Ecological Treasure

It’s not uncommon to hear people wonder why anybody would try to stop logging on what they believe is a dead burnt forest. So let me explain why the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Wildlands Defense and Native Ecosystems Council recently filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court challenging the North and South Pioneers post fire-logging projects on the Boise National Forest. The Forest Service plan calls for logging 68.5 million board feet of timber — or over 17,000 logging truck loads — on 14,753 acres, upgrading 290 miles of haul roads and building 10.6 miles of new logging roads immediately north and south of Lowman, Idaho.

It’s easy to assume that since the forest burned it no longer has any ecological value and is only good for salvage logging. But nothing could be further from the truth. To begin with, science long ago dispelled the myth that a burned forest is dead. In fact, areas of burnt forest habitat are ecological treasures, not catastrophes, and are actually critical for many native wildlife species such as the rare black-backed woodpecker to survive.

Post-fire habitat, known as ‘complex early seral forest,’ is some of the best wildlife habitat in forests. And while it’s an essential stage of natural forest processes — since some trees such as lodgepole pine will not release their seeds unless they burn — it is among the least protected of all forest habitat types due to environmentally destructive post-fire logging.

Numerous scientific studies document the destructive cumulative impacts of post-fire logging. Those impacts include the elimination of bird species that are most dependent on post-fire habitat, compaction of soils, elimination of snags and downed logs that are essential in supporting new forest growth, spread of noxious weeds, accumulation of logging slash that can add to future fire risks, and increased and on-going sedimentation in streams due to the runoff from both the logging operations and the extensive road network they require.

The latest scientific research inarguably documents the ecological harm done by post-wildfire salvage logging. No fire-dependent bird species or native fish has ever been shown to benefit from salvage logging. Instead, the ecological effects of salvage logging on aquatic ecosystems are overwhelmingly negative, especially in the streams and rivers which flow through the logging project area.

In the case of the Pioneers, the Forest Service will bulldoze over ten miles of new roads into watersheds that already contain 290 miles of roads. All of the logging and road building on fragile post-fire soil will send tons of sediment into streams and rivers which, in the Pioneers, have been federally designated as bull trout “critical habitat.”

In many ways, bull trout are like the canary in the coal mine since the effects of a damaged watershed show up first on bull trout. It’s scientifically well-documented that more roads in a watershed mean bull trout will struggle to survive since they require cold, clean and connected waterways. Salvage logging actually increases water temperatures since a clearcut does not provide shade for streams nor contribute the woody debris necessary for aquatic health and the development of deep, cold holes in which the bull trout hide from predators.

When the best available science points to often severe and long-lasting negative effects of post-fire logging on a wide variety of ecosystems logging the most biologically diverse and threatened forest condition in our National Forest landscape is fundamentally irrational. As undeniably proved by the two million acres of Yellowstone National Park that burned in 1988, forests can and will regenerate without logging. In fact, unlogged burnt forests often have surprising blooms of plants whose seeds can lay dormant for many decades awaiting post-fire conditions to thrive.

In short, we are taking the Forest Service to court on the Pioneer project because it will do the opposite of forest regeneration. It will harm the environment, set back efforts to recover threatened and endangered species and interrupt natural forest processes that have existed since there were forests. Moreover, we believe in their rush to log, the Forest Service has approved a plan that violates the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act.

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Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

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