Study: Salvage Logging Boosts Forest-Fire Threat

Three years ago President Bush asked for legal changes aimed at reducing wildfires. But Oregon State University researchers say "salvage" logging slows the rate of forest recovery and raises the threat of new fires.

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In some parts of the American West, you can start a bar fight by mentioning a forestry practice called salvage logging. That's the cutting of dead or dying trees that have been left behind by fire or disease. Supporters of salvage logging say it helps keep forests healthy and less prone to fires; others think that argument is an ecological sham. Both sides have traditionally had little science to back up their claims. Now NPR's John Nielsen reports that a new study has added some facts to the rhetorical fire.

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

The poster landscape for the salvage logging debate can be found in the mountains of Oregon, mountains blackened in 2002 by the 500,000-acre Biscuit fire, which was the biggest in the history of the state. Ever since the fire went out, the US Forest Service has been pushing an ambitious salvage logging plan for the area. Three years ago, near the burn side, President Bush himself made the case for the plan.

(Soundbite of 2002 speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We need to make our forests healthy by using some common sense. We need to...

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Pres. BUSH: We need to understand if you let kindling build up and there's a lightning strike, you're gonna get yourself a big fire. That's what we've got to understand.

NIELSEN: Now, however, a new study in the journal Science is raising questions about two of the main arguments used to support salvage logging logging plans: first, that they help forests grow back more quickly and, second, that they help prevent future fires. The study began in 2003 when a team of researchers from Oregon State University entered what they called the Biscuit burn zone. Dan Donato, a member of the team, says there were two main goals.

Mr. DAN DONATO: We had these big plots that are about two and a half acres in size, and we count seedlings along those trans-sects and we also count how many pieces of downed woody material we encounter.

NIELSEN: The team compared areas that had been salvaged with zones that had been left alone. Donato went into the unlogged areas thinking he wouldn't find many new trees, but he was wrong.

Mr. DONATO: Even after this huge, high-severity fire and a tough place to grow trees, we're finding lots of natural conifer regeneration, which was very unexpected.

NIELSEN: In the logged areas, sprouting conifers turned out to be much less common, probably because the logging operations ripped up all kinds of soil. As a result, the salvaged zones weren't bouncing back faster than the so-called natural areas.

Donato says another big surprise jumped up when the research team compared the amount of kindling found in the two zones. In the unlogged areas, they didn't find many broken branches piled up on the ground. Donato says they were still attached to the tops of partially burned trees.

Mr. DONATO: And unavailable to surface flames when a fire comes through, whereas after logging, they're all on the ground where they can fuel a fire.

NIELSEN: Donato says these findings show that salvaging may not reduce fire risks. That's a finding sure to find its way into ongoing fights over whether to do more salvage logging. One such fight is now going on in Congress, where a bill that would expedite the practice on public lands has been strongly backed by the White House.

Wally Covington, a forest ecologist at Northern Arizona University, says it's crucial not to make too much of the Biscuit findings, in part because this study only covers a few years. He says it's possible that in 10 years, the salvaged areas will be much better off than the unsalvaged ones. Covington adds that the Oregon findings may not be applicable to forests in other regions.

Mr. WALLY COVINGTON (Northern Arizona University): To try to extrapolate results from hemlock, Douglas fir, western ridge cedar to Ponderosa pine or to loblolly pine is nuts. You just can't do that.

NIELSEN: Covington hopes these results remind people of the fact that as of now, salvage logging is more art than science. But he says that doesn't mean these logging operations should be stopped. He says that's a political decision and not a scientific one. John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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