After the fires

  8-24-08Sacramento BeeMy View: A cynical drumbeat for more loggingBy Greg King - Special To The Bee appeared in CALIFORNIA FORUM section, Page E5Even before fall rains are able to douse the flames of Northern California wildfires, the timber industry and its allies in Sacramento and Washington are maneuvering to use the fires as an excuse for more old-growth logging in national forests.The usual suspects are acting quickly to ensure unimpeded salvage logging of trees within the half-million-acre fire mosaic created since early summer lightning storms roamed the state. Also, flying in the face of all prevailing science, they are invoking "fire prevention" to suspend prohibitions on logging old-growth in unburned areas.The drumbeat was heard in Sacramento on Aug. 13 when industry representatives and policymakers gathered for a "critical wildfire forum" hosted by Assemblyman Doug LaMalfa and the Rural Legislative Caucus. Bill Wickman of the American Forest Resource Council, which represents some 100 timber companies, invited 50 of his colleagues to the forum, including several foresters, mill owners and logging contractors; and no fewer than six representatives of Sierra Pacific Industries, California's largest private landowner and a company that feeds heavily on national forest old-growth."A desired outcome" of the forum, said Wickman, "would be enough political recognition and support to take some action to better allow thinning and salvage to occur without always being held up." Thinning and salvage logging sales are rarely "held up," a trivial concern to Wickman and LaMalfa compared with the need to get the cut out.LaMalfa, a Republican out of Butte County, issued a press release prior to the forum to make the unprovable claim that "removing many of these sick or dangerous trees will help pay for itself." (U.S. taxpayers heavily subsidize timber salvage sales on public lands.) Even more fantastic was his assertion that, "There's no question that keeping fires from reaching the disastrous size we've seen will help save lives, property and our forests themselves."The prevailing science says otherwise: Burned trees are integral and important elements of Western forest ecosystems. Fires are much smaller now than they were before comprehensive fire-suppression policies were enacted after World War II. Property is best protected by creating "defensible space" around homes before fires begin.The cynicism of LaMalfa's standing behind life, property and forest health to promote old-growth logging and post-fire salvage logging was redoubled by his colleague, state Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley. He followed the Aug. 13 summit with comments that fell so short of reality that few media picked them up. But they're worth repeating, because Aanestad's emotional ploy will become next year's salvage-logging mantra.Aanestad wants "real action" by the federal government to allow salvage logging. "We know that current forest management practices have led to an increased number and severity of wildfires in California," Aanestad said in his repetition of this thoroughly debunked myth. "And by that I mean government regulations, government restrictions."Decoded: Measures to protect wildlife in America's tiny remaining old-growth forests have prevented timber companies from logging in a few of these areas. The myth being perpetrated is that diminished old-growth logging has exacerbated wildfires.Here Aanestad ignores virtually all available wildfire science that shows how large trees actually suppress wildfire, due to their own thick, fireproof bark, and to their ability to shade forests and keep them moist and relatively free of volatile brush.Fires generally burn hottest on cutover lands. If Aanestad and LaMalfa truly want to stop the spread of devastating wildfires that burn unusually hot in logging slash and young-tree plantations, they will embrace a cessation of old-growth logging on public lands.Washington is just as cynical. In early August, Rep. Wally Herger, who also represents Trinity and other northeastern California timber counties, and 17 of his colleagues in the California congressional delegation wrote to the federal Council on Environmental Quality requesting a suspension of environmental review so that logging crews can conduct "rehabilitation, restoration and reforestation work" on the burned lands.There is very little in the burned forests that requires rehabilitation, restoration or reforestation, and these members of Congress should know it. Herger and the other legislators actually want to allow logging of large trees, dead or not, in burned areas that might otherwise be protected by a process of environmental review mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that the letter asks the council to suspend.Virtually all of the prevailing science that has surfaced over the past decade insists that Western forests not only survive fire quite well, but that these forests need fire in very much the same way that streams require occasional flooding. One of the most formidable threats to forest health, as well as to life and property, is not fire but suppression of fire. Rehabilitation, restoration and reforestation will only be necessary if a fire is followed by industrial salvage logging, as proposed by Herger and the others.ABOUT THE WRITER:Greg King is executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center in Arcata.