California Forum

The Rim fire, its recovery and the debate

Smoke still curls out of smoldering forest from the Rim fire that swept through the Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park and private timberland late last summer. A sea of black candlesticks covers vast sections of the landscape.

The Rim fire scorched 257,000 acres, making it the largest wildfire ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada. That’s like having 40 percent of Sacramento County burn.

But size alone does not tell the spectacular story of the Rim fire. In some areas, superheated air left only standing dead trees, brown needles and ash; in other areas, flames burned so hot that even stumps were consumed down to soil and rock.

That devastation does not include the impact on wildlife. As I stood along dirt roads in the national forest in late December, John Buckley, the longtime executive director of the nonprofit Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, told me that tens of millions of animals were wiped out.

We saw a buck sauntering among charred trees and ash-covered ground, with nothing green in sight. Buckley pointed out that for lack of food many animals which survived the fire will succumb to starvation.

So now the issue is recovery. On the table for debate is how much salvage logging should be allowed in the national forest, how much land should be left untouched, and how much should be planted in conifer seedlings to help regenerate the forest within our lifetime.

Unfortunately, the extremes have dominated the stage. At one end are those who advocate logging even the most inaccessible dead trees on steep slopes and who want massive, tree-farm replanting. At the other end are those who advocate leaving every dead tree in place. Both could contribute to high-intensity fire in the future.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, introduced legislation requiring salvage logging to “proceed immediately” across the entire burn area, including in Yosemite National Park, regardless of feasibility or scientific merit. His bill would prohibit environmental reviews, public comment and judicial oversight.

McClintock claims his bill is modeled on July 2002 legislation focused on the Black Hills National Forest in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. But McClintock cherry-picks one 95-word section and ignores the rest of the 2,300-word bill, which spelled out a negotiated deal between the U.S. Forest Service, the logging industry and environmental organizations – including protecting roadless areas, adding acres to the wilderness system and prioritizing areas for tree removal, such as stands within skidding distance of existing roads.

McClintock’s bill would set a major precedent for indiscriminate logging after fires on our national lands, without the negotiations between competing interests. In committee, his bill was amended to omit logging in Yosemite – over his “gravest reservations” – but it still is a nonstarter, dividing people at a time when they need to come together.

At the other extreme is the Center for Biological Diversity and the John Muir Project, which have produced a report opposing removal of a single tree among the millions that are dead. They would allow felling of dead trees next to campgrounds and well-traveled roads, but all dead logs would have to remain in the forest to provide habitat for wildlife. The groups want no replanting of trees, saying it would short-circuit the chaparral phase of natural regeneration.

In a report titled “Nourished by Wildfire,” these groups argue that what looks like a barren landscape actually has a valuable combination of dead material as well as surviving organisms that provide for the diverse forest of the future. They believe proposed plans for salvage logging would destroy most of the post-fire habitat of the rare black-backed woodpecker.

I heard woodpeckers already drilling and hammering away as I wandered among blackened snags.

What’s needed is a search for common ground, as represented by Buckley’s group and others. The local timber industry is not greedy, and most environmental organizations can see the value of some tree removal.

As he stood next to a pile of burned logs, surrounded by a sea of standing dead trees, Buckley told me that surely some of these trees can go to sawmills. It would reduce the demand for logging elsewhere and provide jobs in communities that were hit hard by the fire and subsequent government shutdown.

The purists focus on the role blackened snags play in benefiting the black-backed woodpecker, but forest habitat for a host of other sensitive forest species also was wiped out. The Pacific fisher, California spotted owl, northern goshawk and flying squirrels come to mind.

Buckley and other credible observers also believe that failure to remove some dead trees would result, as Buckley puts it, in “tens of thousands of acres with a mass of fallen trees” making “future wildfires in the area burn with such severity that any re-growing forest would once again be roasted.”

Some areas within the 257,000 acres are appropriate for salvage logging and for follow-up tree planting. Other areas clearly are not and should be left alone to regenerate naturally.

As forest ecologists have said at U.S. Forest Service public meetings, make sure that any salvage logging leaves enough of the largest diameter trees to have ecological benefits. Aim for a diverse mosaic in the forest. Plant in patches, not in tree-farm rows. Manage the landscape as if you knew fire was going to come every five to seven years.

What’s needed are effective leaders who can bring together the full range of interests to avert litigation and delays, and to find common ground.

This was an unusual fire, and what we do to recover from it will set national precedents.

Let’s set the right ones. Proceed with an attitude of respect and collaboration. Bring together the Forest Service, the timber industry and environmental groups.

There are plenty of dead standing trees to provide wood for society and, at the same time, to leave in the forest to promote ecological values, without eviscerating environmental reviews. That’s a middle ground worth pursuing, for the Rim fire and future ones.

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