Salvage Logging as Timber Industry Welfare

The Lolo National Forest is proposing to “salvage” log a portion of the 28,000-acre Liberty Burn near Seeley Lake, Montana.

The Forest Service (FS) approved the logging using a categorical exclusion (CE) process. CEs were initially designed to permit the FS to do minor actions like replace an outhouse in a campground or replace signs or other activities that had minimal environmental impact. Today the FS is increasingly using CE to circumvent and limit public participation, and ecological review.

The Blackfoot Challenge and Southwest Crown of the Continent Collaborative timber advocacy groups, and membership organizations like the Montana Timber Association and Pyramid Lumber also support the project and use of CE.

In the case of the Liberty Timber Sale, hundreds of acres of forest will be logged under a CE primarily to extract their commercial timber value, but it is “dressed up” as providing some ecological benefits.

For instance, the district ranger is quoted in saying they need to get the timber sale done quickly before the economic value of the wood is lost. At the same time, the agency tries to legitimize and hide the fact that it is nothing more than a handmaiden to the timber industry by suggesting it needs to “replant” trees in the burnt area—as if the forest is incapable of natural regeneration.

There is almost universal agreement among ecologists that logging burnt trees is ecologically destructive to forest ecosystems.

Indeed, anyone using Google can find numerous papers outlining the problems with removing burnt trees from forest systems. Indeed, there is an entire book by well-known forest ecologist Jerry Franklin (Salvage Logging and Its Ecological Consequences) outlining the harm done by salvage logging. Among the papers articulating the problems with salvage logging is one by University of Montana ecologist Richard Hutto.

In letters to Congress a number of scientists opined: “We know of no scientific reason to engage in salvage logging or roadbuilding in burned areas and we know of many sound reasons not to.” and in another more than 200 scientists opposed salvage logging.

Here are links to a few other articles.

Is it possible that the Lolo National Forest and its lackey groups like the SWCCC are unable to use Google? Perhaps someone should give them a ten-minute lesson?

I acknowledge many public employees are under enormous pressure to “get the cut out.” Nevertheless, I find it intolerable when agencies and sycophants like the SWCOC and supporting groups fail to acknowledge the real economic and ecological cost. Instead, they attempt to hide the real justification for logging behind presumed ecological “benefits.”

Nearly all timber sales on public lands lose money. The FS tries to hide this fact with dubious accounting methods which the General Accounting Office labeled as “unreliable overall” and had “significant reporting errors in its financial statements” and “lacked financial systems that could accurately track revenues and costs.”

Worse than the economic subsidies is the failure of the FS to truly acknowledge and account for the ecological impacts of its timber program. Ultimately the ecological impacts of logging are more costly to society than the tax dollars we give to the welfare timber industry.

Among the negative ecological impacts of salvage logging are removal of biomass and dead wood which are critical to healthy forest ecosystems, the creation of logging roads which are vectors for the spread of weeds, and sedimentation in our aquatic ecosystems, the disruption of natural sub-surface water flow when slopes are cut by logging roads, the disturbance of sensitive wildlife associated with logging activity, the compaction of soils from logging equipment and increased access for ORVs, and other motorized recreation.

There is even a study that showed that salvage logging equipment kills much of the natural forest regeneration—which the timber industry and the Oregon State Forestry School sought to keep from being published and which the Lolo National Forest ignores too.

Even more important in this day of climate change, logging and wood product production releases far more carbon than is emitted in forest fires.  Most carbon remains on-site stored in roots, snags, and the like.

In fact, the soil charcoal resulting from wildfires is one of the best long-term storage mechanisms for storing carbon. Here is a summary by Tom Deluca, now dean of the U of Montana Forestry School.

This is another example where the Forest Service (and associated organizations) demonstrate that they are willing to compromise the integrity of our public lands to bankroll the local timber industry with taxpayer-subsidized timber sales and ecologically destructive logging practices that degrade public forest ecosystems.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy