Fire as an Excuse for Logging
Wet weather “salvage” logging in Klamath National Forest 2014
Fire is a difficult subject because it defies easy or generalized characterizations. Fire is powerful and scary. That statement probably rings true to most folks. Fire is also natural. And for the most part, fire is good for our forests and wildlife—fire helps clear debris on the forest floor, encourage new growth, produces important habitat elements like snags (standing dead trees), and helps accelerate the development of old-growth characteristics (like deformed branches and cavities) in younger forests. That fire is natural and more often than not good for forest health is something most people don’t know (and that the mainstream media has no interest in discussing).
The timber industry has long used the specter of fire as an excuse to log. The language used regarding fire is deliberately chosen to reinforce their clearcut agenda. (The science to justify this claim, coincidentally, is largely funded by the timber industry.) To justify logging post-fire, Big Timber says it needs to “salvage” the standing dead trees or else it will go to “waste.”
In California, the way fire is managed depends on who owns the underlying lands. On private lands, timber companies have wide discretion and very little oversight when managing their lands either for fire prevention or for post-fire logging. (Both activities, to varying degrees, are exempt from the requirement to prepare a Timber Harvest Plan.) On federal lands, however, Big Timber is bound by federal law which has traditionally placed greater restrictions on timber harvests, both for undisturbed green trees and for post-fire forests.
Big Timber wants to capitalize on logging our national forests (for, among other reasons, logging on federal lands is heavily subsidized). To do so, Big Timber has its eyes set of weakening federal environmental laws, particularly the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal land managers to consider the environmental impact of a project before acting.
The timber industry’s logic—that a tree is nothing more than a pile of fuel—has found champions in federal legislators. In 2002, following a string of large fires in a drought year, the Bush Administration, at the behest of Big Timber, passed the “Healthy Forest Restoration Act.” The Act, which has been mocked as the “Leave No Tree Behind Act,” weakened environmental laws for “fuels reduction” projects by, among other things, limiting the public’s right to comment and object to projects and limiting and in some cases removing environmental impact analysis.
Big Timber is at it again. In response to this summer’s fires and the lingering anti-fire sentiment, House Republicans are pushing to pass a new law which will weaken or remove environmental laws. H.R. 2647 or the “Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015,” would, among other things:
Shift money devoted to environmental restoration to logging.
Categorically exempt many destructive activities—including pre- and post-fire logging up to 15,000 acres—from environmental impact analysis.
Fast-track projects to bypass public participation.
Increase the road network on our national forests and make road decommissioning more difficult.
Require environmental groups to post bonds before litigating projects.
It is not clear whether H.R. 2647 will pass the Senate or if its authors will attempt to sneak it into another “must-pass” bill. What is certain is that Big Timber and its friends in Congress will continue to use fire as a vehicle to get the cut out, whether in this Congressional session or the next.
Where does this end? With an educated public. So when someone tells you that fire is a problem and that “active management” is the solution, call them on it! Or when a friend repeats a line about how environmental groups are standing in the way of healthy forests, politely correct them. Together, some conversations over coffee or in the comment section on Facebook, we can change the narrative that the mainstream media and Big Timber is trying to sell us.