Opinion: Don't Log Burned Forests—Let Nature Heal Them

The U.S. Forest Service plan for logging after the Rim fire is seen as a "catastrophe."

The Rim fire scorched trees large and small, including these photographed on August 24, 2013, outside of Camp Mather near Groveland, California.


The Rim fire began as a hunter's illegal campfire on August 17 of last year, burned for more than two months before full containment, then continued to smolder until winter snow extinguished the last tendrils of smoke. The fire blackened 402 square miles of trees, chaparral, and grassland, mostly in Stanislaus National Forest but also on private timberland and across a 77,000-acre swath of Yosemite National Park. (See "Huge Rim Fire Gives Opportunity to Restore Forest Differently.")

It was the largest wildfire on record in the Sierra Nevada and the third largest wildfire in California history—a hellish conflagration, by any measure, as some 5,000 firefighters can testify. And yet the crucial moment for this burned forest was not back then, when it was burning. It's right now.

In May the U.S. Forest Service proposed a "salvage" logging plan to clear-cut nearly 30,000 acres of the burn, and it has begun a hazardous-tree removal project that would log an additional 16,000 acres. A bonanza for the timber industry, the salvage plan would sell 661 million board feet of timber, nearly four times the volume sold last year in all of California's national forests. The plan would waive Forest Service rules intended to protect old-growth forest. Trees more than 30 inches in diameter at the base, formerly off-limits, are now fair game.

Salvage logging is a suspect concept in the West, and litigation and public opposition have slowed these projects in the past. The Forest Service, having learned from this experience, shortened the public comment period on Rim fire salvage to just 30 days. The opportunity for citizen input closed on June 16.

A week earlier, the Forest Service began its hazardous-tree removal project along Highway 120, the main route into Yosemite National Park. To date the logging has made it just a few miles down the road, but eventually crews will clear-cut a total of 100,000 trees along 194 miles of roadway through the forest. This includes many miles of old road not maintained for public use—a hint, critics suggest, that the real agenda is less about public safety than board feet of timber. According to one Forest Service estimate, travelers to Yosemite should expect to meet an average of one logging truck every 30 seconds.

Rising From the Ashes

An increasingly vocal group of forest ecologists, both inside the Forest Service and out, has joined environmentalists in protesting the proposed plan as a catastrophe. The ecologists point out that most western forests are not just fire adapted but fire dependent. A burn in the Sierra Nevada is not tragedy; it is simply a stage in the life of the forest.

The Rim fire's torching of the chaparral of the foothills has left a Hiroshima-like landscape, but this is nothing new. Chaparral, a low-growing, impenetrable, aromatic weave of ceanothus, chamise, manzanita, and scrub oak, burns frequently because it must burn. The leaves of the ceanothus are tacky with flammable resins. Ignited, they provide the intense heat required by ceanothus seeds for germination. Chamise—greasewood—dries out, burns like a grease fire, clears out less pyrotechnic competition, and quickly sprouts again.

Higher in the Sierra, in the zone of thunderstorms and lightning fires, giant sequoias—the biggest things that have ever lived—are protected from fire by fibrous outer bark four feet thick. "Bring It On" is the sequoia motto. The tiny seeds of this colossal tree germinate best on bare mineral soil where the duff has been partially burned away. The lodgepole pine and other closed-cone Sierra conifers open their cones and shed seeds profusely only in the heat of fire.

Western trees are beautifully adapted to fire ecologically but poorly adapted politically. No forest type has fewer legal protections, and is more vulnerable to exploitation, than burned forest.

And as with the flora, so it goes with the fauna. Wood-boring beetles can detect the heat or smoke of high-intensity burns from 40 miles away. They fly toward it, passing the deer, bears, foxes, and squirrels fleeing in the other direction. Black-backed woodpeckers follow the beetles into the blackened forest and drill beetle larvae out of snags. The woodpeckers chisel out several new nest cavities each year, abandoning last year's holes to the mountain bluebirds and other cavity-nesters that follow them into the burn.

Insects swarm the flowering shrubs and herbs that spring up from charred landscapes. Bats, flycatchers, swifts, and swallows flock in to hunt the insects. Small-mammal populations explode amid the downed logs and resurgent shrubs. Hawks, owls, weasels, and coyotes migrate in to hunt those. For any burn in the Sierra, this indigenous fire crew is forever on call, a host of creatures ready and waiting for fire and its aftermath.

Flames from the Rim fire consume trees near Groveland, California.


In studies of the "snag-forest habitat" left by high-intensity burns, ecologists have found biodiversity equal to, or surpassing, the biodiversity found in old-growth forest. A mosaic of low-intensity and high-intensity burns makes for diverse and healthy forest. Burned trees are not waste. The snags, seed logs, and other deadwood that the Forest Service is rushing to truck to the mills are just the next generation of trees in the process of becoming. Fire frees up nutrients bound in woody material on the forest floor and makes them available, as ash, to new growth.

Western trees are beautifully adapted to fire ecologically but poorly adapted politically. No forest type has fewer legal protections, and is more vulnerable to exploitation, than burned forest.

Missing the Forest for the Lumber

In the past two decades the Forest Service has made a real effort to shift its emphasis from timber harvest to ecosystems management. The agency acknowledges that the great failure of its past has been to miss the forest for the trees—or, more precisely, to miss the forest for the lumber. This is why the proposed salvage plan is so disheartening. It marks a regression to those bad old days.

The post-fire spring has turned to summer. The chaparral and forest burned in the Rim fire—country described as "nuked" and "hopeless" by the Forest Service—is greening up, as always after fire. Last spring, driving Highway 120 to Yosemite through Rim fire smoke, I passed blackened ponderosa pines I would have sworn were dead. They are now flushing new needles, a green glow in stand after stand.

The hazardous-tree removal teams are working their way down this road. Where the standard removal distance is 1.5 or 2 tree lengths from either side, the bushing back here is much deeper. Trees are not being selected and marked. Everything is being taken, dead or alive. The wide corridor along the road to Yosemite is a preview, writ small, of the salvage plan to follow.

"Right now the critical date is August 1," fire ecologist Chad Hanson told me recently. Hanson, director of the John Muir Project, is a prominent critic of the salvage plan. "The decision will come around then. The Forest Service has curtailed public participation and cut short the comment period. There is no administrative appeal or objection period. The day they sign the decision is the day the chain saws start."

Writer and California native Kenneth Brower is the author of many articles and books, including American Legacy: Our National Forests.