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Logging During the Smith River Wildfire

Caltrans logging deck off Highway 199 Wild and Scenic River Smith River corridor.
Caltrans logging deck off Highway 199 Wild and Scenic River Smith River corridor, photo courtesy of Greg King.

Many people have seen the big, old, and even ancient trees fallen by Caltrans along Highway 199 during the Smith River Complex wildfire that burned through the area last year. That fifteen-mile stretch caused significant public outcry, as the loss of ancient trees and visual quality along one of California’s most beloved Wild & Scenic rivers done under the premise of public safety will last for generations. What most folks are unaware of is that just uphill, after nearly 4 inches of rain, the U.S. Forest Service had fire-fighting contractors logging on multiple roadsides, while the Smith River Fire was essentially out.

The 2023 Smith River Complex wildfire, map courtesy of U.S. Forest Service & CALFIRE.

Roadside logging on the 17N05 (Jawbone) Road.
Roadside logging on the 17N05 (Jawbone) Road, photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service.

Capitalizing on an emergency with unlimited money for fire suppression, unburdened by environmental review or public input, closing public land, and having access to often excessive crews and equipment ⎯– logging during wildfire is not a new practice for the Forest Service and has become a trend. While waiting for the fire to officially be contained and funds to stop, multiple miles of “hazard” trees were felled on the Smith River National Recreation Area last year. Up to 300-400 acres of roadside logging are being planned for the coming year in lesser known Wild and Scenic River corridors, like the Siskiyou Fork and Little Jones and Knopti Creeks.

Taking advantage of having money, crews and logging equipment that is normally unavailable or hard to get, the Forest Service logged a mile-long roadside shaded fuelbreak far from the fire’s edge along Fox Ridge. This was just uphill from the Big Flat neighborhood, removed many smaller sized trees, left a decent amount of forest canopy, and is less egregious than bulldozed firelines that ravage and plague mountaintops during fire events. However, it was clearly done under the guise of a wildfire emergency, with the Forest Service admittedly knowing that the fire would not likely reach the area and knowing it would not be used to stage a backfire or underburn.

Smith River Collaborative reviews and discusses hazard tree logging in the field.
Smith River Collaborative reviews and discusses hazard tree logging in the field, photo courtesy of Kimberly Baker.

While it is difficult to control or influence decisions made during a wildfire, monitoring, documenting, and sharing may help make change in the future. EPIC has made multiple attempts to work with Caltrans to define and understand its hazard tree abatement process. We appreciate the Smith River National Recreation Area leadership and staff, and will continue working with the Smith River Collaborative to achieve the most ecologically sensitive solutions to roadside logging, while maintaining public safety in a way that makes sense and protects our forest, wildlife, and human communities.


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