Our View: Timber scorched by Rim fire can still be harvested

January 11, 2014 


Sierra Pacific Industries works on salvaging dead trees, killed during the Rim fire, on their property off Cottonwood Road in the Stanislaus National Forest on Thursday, September 26, 2013. The plantation of White Fir, Ponderosa Pine, and Sugar Pine trees were planted planted in the early 70's after the Granite fire. This is an example of the type of salvaging that has been proposed for federal lands inside the Rim fire burn radius.

ANDY ALFARO — The Modesto Bee Buy Photo

Gateway communities to Yosemite National Park suffered a triple-whammy in 2013 – the Rim fire, the 16-day government shutdown and another winter with virtually no snow.

The area is a national treasure but needs help. It also needs a congressional leader who will find consensus and deliver as much opportunity as possible. Unfortunately, Rep. Tom McClintock, the Elk Grove Republican who represents Yosemite and the area scorched by the fire, has further complicated the situation so far by not forging a compromise on efforts to help the area’s second most important industry – logging.

How the area recovers from the 257,000-acre fire that swept through the Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park and private timberland from Aug. 17 until the end of September matters a lot – not just to Sonora, Jamestown, Groveland and Twain Harte, but for precedents it will set for other areas stricken by wildland fires.

The U.S. Forest Service has done a good job bringing people together to work collaboratively. Still, it has an extremely difficult task reaching consensus among competing interests in a way that avoids litigation.

The issues are complex. Should dead trees be removed? Should tree seedlings be planted? Should the area be left to regenerate on its own?

Fortunately, some agreements have emerged:

• The 79,000 acres that burned in Yosemite National Park should be left to recover naturally, removing only trees that are a hazard to public safety.

• Salvage logging on 16,000 acres of private land owned by Sierra Pacific Industries will keep mills busy until summer 2015. Sierra Pacific expects to remove 150 million to 180 million board feet from timberland it owns that was burned in the Rim fire. Two Tuolumne County mills owned by the company at Standard, near Sonora, and Chinese Camp can process about 125 million board feet a year. They are operating near capacity, employing 280 people. Some Sierra Pacific logs also are being hauled 125 to 145 miles to the Lincoln Mill near Roseville. All three mills are running two shifts.

• Some dead trees are still standing. They pose a hazard. Environmental analysis is proceeding as it should, and trees should be ready for removal by the end of spring. That could yield another 100 million board feet.

The real battle now is over what other areas of dead standing trees, if any, should be logged in the next two years. That time frame is important. If the trees are left in the forest longer than two years, they lose most of their value as timber. If removed, they can sit on the “deck” at a sawmill for another two years and still be useful.

This is where McClintock comes in.

McClintock has called for immediate salvage logging of 1 billion board feet of timber. To understand the magnitude of what McClintock envisions, a billion board feet is equal to all the timber logged in California in a year. Much of it is in steep, remote areas. To get to it, loggers would need to cut roads and scale steep mountains, causing yet more erosion on slopes with no ability to stop runoff. The damage – environmental and to whatever is below – could be enormous.

McClintock believes that such a massive operation should be exempt from federal environmental laws, public comment and court review. That is nonsensical.

There is no scientific basis for the scale of removal that McClintock advocates. Besides, the logging industry doesn’t have enough trucks, crews, equipment and processing capacity for it. For instance, there are only 11 logging crews and 165 trucks working in the area of the Sierra hit by the fire, and they will be busy through the summer simply removing the timber from private lands. And even if more crews and trucks could be brought into the area, the mills would have no place to store that much timber.

The congressman from Elk Grove ought to drop his ill-conceived idea and concentrate on helping the timber companies acquire the areas they target.

Logging should be limited to areas that are most easily accessible, economically feasible and least controversial – about a tenth of the total area burned. That would produce 250 million to 300 million board feet of timber. The fees from the salvage harvest would be used exclusively to replant the forest, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

There is a glut of dead standing trees on areas of relatively flat ground, where crews can economically cut and load within a quarter-mile of existing roads. The Forest Service should reject proposals to build new roads to access dead trees. It also should reject cable logging on steep slopes, where dragging and gouging causes erosion. Nor is costly helicopter logging in the most inaccessible areas necessary.

A small amount of salvage logging and replanting in a mosaic, not uniform plantation rows, would keep the timber industry busy for the two-year useful life of dead trees, draw the least opposition and avoid much additional ecological damage. By focusing narrowly, environmental studies could be completed by August without litigation that causes delays.

The Rim fire, disasterous though it was, provides certain benefits for scientists interested in protecting high-intensity burn habitat, and for timber interests seeking logs.

The scale of the Rim fire leaves room for compromise. McClintock should recognize that, seize the opportunity to help the district he represents, and work with others to expedite the implementation of this entirely sensible plan. If he doesn’t, McClintock will delay the very thing he is trying to facilitate – salvage logging – and cause even more pain to an area that has had enough.

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