Forest Service May Try To Recoup Rim Fire Costs With Logging

The U.S. Forest Service has proposed a large salvage logging operation in the area affected by last year's historic Rim Fire, which burned 410-square miles of California's Sierra Nevada. The proposal is meeting stiff opposition from environmental groups who say the land is better left untouched.

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Last year's Rim Fire was one of the most destructive in California's history. It burned for more than two months, charring 410 square miles in and around Yosemite National Park. The damage was estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Well, the U.S. Forest Service now hopes to make some of that money back by logging the area. But as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, the proposal has sparked a backlash from conservation groups.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Last August, the Rim Fire torched trees and brush, roaring over mountains, through fields and homes. A study by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission estimated damages could total anywhere from $250 million to 1.8 billion. The U.S. Forest Service's proposal offers equally staggering numbers: roughly 30,000 acres available for salvage logging. Mike Albrecht is a forester and the president of the logging company Sierra Resource Management. He says from that land, loggers could...

MIKE ALBRECHT: Probably log somewhere around 500 million board feet.

ROTT: To put that in perspective...

ALBRECHT: It takes about 15,000 board feet to build the average American home.

ROTT: One state forester estimated it would stock two area lumber yards for more than two years. But it has to be salvaged fast. Albrecht says that after two years, rot and decay can make the timber value-less.

ALBRECHT: We've already had a tragedy, and that is this fire has really destroyed a lot of forest land. The second tragedy would be to sit by and do nothing.

ROTT: It's common for the Forest Service to log fire-burned areas. But many conservation groups say that practice isn't based on ecology. Chad Hanson is the director and staff ecologist of the John Muir Project. He says that the Forest Service gets much of their money for replanting, reseeding, restoration from timber sales. So...

CHAD HANSON: For the timber industry and for the Forest Service, it's about money.

ROTT: But he says that can be shortsighted. Fire burned ecosystems are rare and hugely important to many animal species that depend on dead and dying trees. Most people assume that when a fire burns through a forest, it destroys the forest.

HANSON: It's just like fire destroys a house if it burns a house. But the two things are very, very different. And that's what the ecological science is telling us very loud and clearly.

ROTT: He says that doesn't mean logging shouldn't happen, just that it needs to be done so selectively and carefully. The area Forest Service office is asking that their proposal be fast-tracked. Officials could not be reached for comment today. Even with an approval, though, logging wouldn't start until August. Nathan Rott, NPR News.

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