Restoration efforts in the Chetco Bar fire in southwest Oregon are getting underway. While most of the area was lightly burned or even unburned, more than a third of the acreage suffered severe or moderate tree damage.
Federal forest managers are gearing up to authorize salvage logging in some of the more badly-burned areas. Local elected officials are pushing hard for cutting those trees. But others question whether the long-term costs outweigh the short term benefits.
On a recent Monday morning, Curry County Commissioner Court Boice stood along a gravel road overlooking thousands of acres of forest burned by the Chetco Bar fire. He gestured at the largely-charred landscape.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re talking survival here,” he said. “We’re not going to let it go to waste."
Boice was leading a group of nearly 20 of his constituents on a tour of some of the more damaged parts of the burn area. He noted that fire-killed trees are only good for a year and a half or so after a fire. If they’re not harvested by then, they’re typically too decayed to use.
“So every day that we lose we lose value. We lose product, we lose money for our schools and roads and families and everything else in this county,” he said.
State Representative David Brock Smith, whose district encompasses the Chetco Bar burn, was along for the tour, as well. He said quick approval for salvage logging would be good for more than just local workers.
“Those salvage dollars not only helping the economy, but also being poured back into the landscape for erosion control, replanting and other mitigation strategies,” he said.
Smith said it’s also important to remove dead and dying trees that could fuel the next big fire …
“So in order to protect the watershed and in order to protect the community and its infrastructure, there’s an urgency for salvage operations.”
If local elected officials are eager to get salvage logging underway, the folks at the Forest Service seem ready to oblige.
“We are very interested in doing some type of salvage on this fire, as well,” says Tina Lanier.
Lanier is the Gold Beach District Ranger for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, where the Chetco Bar fire mostly burned. Lanier says that initially, at least, her office is studying the feasibility of salvage logging on about 13-thousand acres of severely and moderately burned forest located in areas already designated as suitable for harvest.
“Definitely within a one-year timeframe we want to have people out there actually cutting trees,” she says.
But just as was the case after the massive 2002 Biscuit fire, which burned in some of the same areas as Chetco Bar did, salvage logging is controversial.
Joseph Vaile is with the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, an Ashland-based environmental group. He notes that private industrial forests that burned in Chetco Bar are already being salvage logged, as are miles of roadsides where so-called “hazard trees” are being removed.
“So there will be a lot of post-fire logging,” he says. “The question we have is how much more do we need and how can we do it in a way to make sure we maintain the fisheries values that are so high in the Chetco River.”
Salvage logging on burned slopes can often cause erosion that slides into rivers and damages fish habitat. Vaile says it’s important to protect the water quality that has made the Chetco River a popular recreational fishing destination.
“Really, the fishery there is what drives the local economy,” he says. “It’s the resource that’s more important than any other resource in that watershed. So what we would look at is, how do we maintain that resource?”
For Dominick Dellasala, the whole idea that a big fire like Chetco Bar is a catastrophe that humans need to repair is misguided.
“Fire doesn’t destroy ecosystems. It rejuvenates them,” he says. “It’s Nature’s phoenix, and ecosystems will literally rise from the ashes soon after the burn.”
Dellasala is Chief Scientist at the non-profit Geos Institute in Ashland. He says salvage logging is exactly the wrong way to heal a post-fire landscape.
"That takes out the big live and dead trees that are essential to re-booting that ecosystem, damages soil, sends sediment into streams, killing off salmon spawning beds from the extensive road network,” he says. “That’s the real catastrophe. It’s not the forest fires.”
Science may suggest the environmental benefits of salvage logging are few. But the economic argument for jobs and timber revenue has strong appeal on Oregon’s south coast, which is still suffering the loss of a once-thriving timber industry.
The push for accelerated Chetco Bar salvage logging is gathering steam, and after a fire season seen by many as the result of neglectful forest management, the political pressure to do more cutting in the woods is only likely to increase.