Yosemite fire debate over harvesting burned trees
Peter Fimrite - San Francisco Chronicle
Updated 9:16 am, Friday, December 27, 2013The enormous blackened region of wilderness devastated by the Rim Fire - an area roughly equivalent to a mile-wide patch of land stretching from San Francisco to Los Angeles - is now the subject of a fiery debate over a proposal to salvage the burned timber.
The massive fire left dead timber spread over 257,000 acres in the Sierra, including portions of Yosemite National Park. That's about 1 billion board feet, the measurement for lumber. A board foot is the volume of a plank 1 foot long, 1 foot wide and 1 inch thick.
The U.S. Forest Service has submitted a plan to harvest dead trees on 29,648 acres of the Stanislaus National Forest. Another 50 million board feet of "hazard trees" that are threatening to fall on public roads and jeopardize public safety would be harvested under a separate plan.
The salvaged timber - valuable wood that can still be used for housing construction - must be harvested before it is ruined by fungus and wood-boring beetles, a process that could happen within a year, according to proponents. The timber and revenues from the sale of the wood could be used to help the fire recovery efforts in Tuolumne and Mariposa counties and for replanting, officials said.
"Californians are going to use wood," said John Buckley, director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resources Center, a science-based environmental group that works with the Forest Service on ecosystem preservation issues. "Do you want Californians to use wood that is already dead and will rot if you don't use it, or do you want to go out into the forest and cut living trees for wood?"
The proposal sparked an angry response from environmentalists who say salvage logging disrupts the development of a complex post-fire ecosystem that is crucial to reforestation.
"There is nothing one could think of that would be more destructive after a fire than salvage logging and planting," said Chad Hanson, a forest and fire ecologist for the John Muir Protect, a nonprofit offshoot of Earth Island Institute. Post-fire habitat "is the single most biodiverse forest habitat type in the conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada."
Largest in Sierra
The Rim Fire, the largest ever in the Sierra Nevada and the third-largest in California history, started Aug. 17 when a hunter built an illegal campfire in woodlands parched after eight months of dry weather.
The 200-foot wall of flames destroyed 11 homes, incinerated the city of Berkeley's popular Tuolumne Camp and caused close to $70 million in total damage. It burned for 69 days through chaparral-covered canyons, newly planted tree plots, previously burned areas and dense forest.
The fire was so hot, Buckley said, that not a single living tree was left on almost 40,000 acres in its core area. In addition, he said, all the pine cones were incinerated and there are no seeds left for regeneration on large swaths of land, an unusual situation that he said justifies salvage operations and the planting of new trees.
"Mile after mile is filled with standing blackened trees, scorched and incinerated," he said. "There are literally millions of these dead trees."
The salvage plan's environmental report, which is open for public comment until Jan. 6, proposes leaving at least 170,000 acres of burned forest untouched, Buckley said. That, he said, is plenty of dead wood for the beetles, woodpeckers and other wildlife that thrive in the charred snags left behind by fire.
The fire ecology of California has been the subject of increasing debate in recent years. Historians and ecologists say the state's ecosystem is dependent on fire. The system developed over millennia and was cultivated by Native Americans who used to set fires around their seasonal camps to stimulate growth of favored plants the following year.
The debate is about just how important burn areas are and how much charred wood the ecosystem needs.
Hanson, whose organization is the most vociferous opponent of the harvest plan, said trees killed by fire provide habitat for the larvae of wood-boring beetles, which dig under the bark and lay their eggs. The beetles, in turn, attract black-backed woodpeckers, which build nest cavities in the trees and feed on the beetle larvae.
Hanson said the woodpeckers each consume the larvae of 13,500 beetles a year.
"You need a lot of standing dead trees to get that - at least 100 of these large snags per acre," he said.
The woodpeckers are a keystone species, he said, because their hollows are subsequently used by other cavity nesters, including birds, squirrels and pine martens. And when the trees fall, they create habitat for many other small mammals. Meanwhile, he said, the flowering native shrubs that grow out of the ash attract flying insects, which provide food for flycatchers that are themselves food for raptors.
"A snag forest is a rich, complex and colorful system," Hanson said. "At least 200 to 300 acres are needed for just one pair of black-backed woodpeckers, and it needs to be an area where most, if not all, of the trees were killed, because that's what the beetles select and where the highest concentrations of beetles are."
Timber companies, which own land within the Rim Fire area, are already logging 12,000 to 15,000 acres of burned wood. Hanson said the proposal to do more harvesting is essentially "an extinction plan for the black-backed woodpecker," which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
The opposition to the logging plan prompted Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove (Sacramento County), to introduce legislation that would expedite salvage logging in the national forest and Yosemite by suspending environmental reviews and forestalling litigation by environmentalists.
The effort is not expected to succeed. Buckley and others oppose McClintock's proposal, and Forest Service ecologists say there never were plans to log burned trees in Yosemite. It would, nevertheless, be a waste not to take some of the dead trees and plant new trees to replace them, Buckley said.
It is a philosophical argument that could play an important role in the future of California forests and influence the way ecologists deal with fire regeneration.
"We are going through the same thing now that we went through with old-growth forests years ago," Hanson said, referring to a time when activists led mass protests to save the ancient trees that virtually everyone now agrees are ecologically precious.
A preliminary decision on the draft plan will be issued in April, and a final decision is expected in August.
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