Salvage logging followed by reforestation increases the probability that our forests remain as forests after the fires are out.
By CHF Board Member Mark Buckbee | Communities For Healthy Forests | July 27th, 2022
Communities For Healthy Forests supports post-fire salvage logging on public forestlands. After wildfires, forests on public lands are evaluated for salvage logging. Each forest has a Forest Plan which will specify where salvage logging can and cannot occur.
For example, the BLMs 2016 Resource Management Plan for western Oregon precludes salvage logging in most designated reserves, with some exceptions. But on lands open to salvage, the forest managers will determine the scope of harvest, depending on multiple factors, most notably tree mortality.
Salvage logging after wildfires has been controversial. Anti-forest management groups will often litigate to stop or delay the salvage. Their rationale is simple; if they delay the sale for long enough, the trees will decay and lose their economic value. This takes as little as 2 years depending on the size of the trees. But there are real consequences to not salvaging and leaving the trees to decay. Here are some of them: Quickly after fires, multiple species of insects are attracted by smoke, volatile compounds, and insect pheromones to the damaged forest. They will attack dead trees and are also known to kill many of the residual live trees. Where insect numbers are high enough, they will attack adjacent stands of un-burned trees, particularly if those trees are already stressed by factors such as drought. Timely salvage can remove much of the food source and dampen the population explosion of these tree-killing, wood-damaging insects.
Dead trees left to decompose will emit greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, most notably CO2 and methane. This composition occurs at a rate of approximately 2-3% annually, leaving little wood after 30 years. But if these dead trees are salvaged and used for lumber and other wood products, the carbon in the wood will be stored for long periods, perhaps even more than a century.
Eventually, dead burned trees fall and continue to decompose. Until they are fully decayed, they contribute to the fuel loading in the forest. In some cases, this fuel loading is substantially higher than what would be found in green forests. Wildland fire specialists are observing that increasingly, burned areas are reburning. There are complex reasons for this including climate change, human causation, topography, brushy fuels, and other factors. If burned forests are not salvage logged and there are now heavy fuel loads on the ground, when there are reburns, there will be elevated damage to the soil. This will make it even more difficult to reforest, and some stands will become brush fields. This is being observed particularly in drier forest types and high elevation types.
Leaving numerous standing dead trees, aka snags, has a substantial impact on firefighting when there are reburns, or fires in adjacent stands. Burning snags are considered among the greatest risks to firefighters in wildland firefighting. Where numerous snags are left unsalvaged or unfelled, firefighters will have to back away from the snags when building fire line. Consequently, firefighters may not be able to take advantage of topography, creeks, ridges, and roads for control lines. This can lead to substantial additional acreage being sacrificed to the fire. Also, tree planting under stands of dead trees can be hazardous.
Leaving severely burned forests unsalvaged for species habitat purposes is in most cases inappropriate. The value of these forests for endangered species such as Northern Spotted Owl or Marbled Murrelets is minimal. Harvest plans can leave some snags for cavity dwellers, but leaving all snags is far in excess of species needs. Modern tree harvesting methods and State Forest Practice Act requirements greatly reduce erosion and sedimentation, thereby protecting waterways and associated species.
Our warming and drying climate is making natural recovery of forests more difficult. Considerable research is showing that severely burned forests left unmanaged will become brush fields, particularly on drier and high elevation sites. Salvage logging followed by reforestation increases the probability that we can keep our forests as forests!
Mark Buckbee is a retired Federal forester who had a 34 year career with the Bureau of Land Management in western Oregon. He holds a Bachelors degree in Forest Resources Management from SUNY-Syracuse and a Masters degree in Forest Science from Utah State University.