ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
One year ago, in California, a huge wildfire was burning near Yosemite National Park. The Rim Fire was the largest ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada. It consumed 400 square miles. And now a controversy has broken out over how to help the forest recover. Lauren Sommer of member station KQED has the story.
LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Eric Knapp is breaking apart a burnt pinecone looking for seeds, what in his line of work is considered a clue.
ERIC KNAPP: Going into an area after a fire, you almost feel like CSI, you know, just kind of slew thing.
SOMMER: Knapp is an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service who's studying how forests recover. We're in a part of the Stanislaus National Forest that was severely burned by the Rim Fire.
KNAPP: It's completely dead. These trees won't be coming back to life.
SOMMER: A lot of the forest was charred like this. The Rim Fire was fed by high winds and bone-dry conditions, costing more than $100 million to fight. A hunter was recently charged with starting it with an illegal campfire. The dead trees around us will stay standing for at least a decade. Knapp says wildlife, like the Black-backed Woodpecker, will move right in before the trees fall down.
KNAPP: It's woodpecker utopia. But then after 8 or 15 years, when they're on the ground, then it becomes a different management concern.
SOMMER: The downed logs could become a fire risk, making the next fire more intense. So the Forest Service is proposing to allow logging companies to harvest the trees on 44,000 acres.
MARK LUSTER: It makes sense to create jobs here in California, get out wood here and create jobs for Californians.
SOMMER: Mark Luster is with Sierra Pacific Industries, the second largest lumber producer in the country. We're at a sawmill, not far from the Rim Fire, where hundreds of burned trees are being stacked.
LUSTER: You can see here from some of these logs, if you look beyond the bark, inside the wood looks pretty good.
SOMMER: These trees are from the company's private land which also burned in the Rim Fire. Luster says opening Forest Service land for logging would provide an economic boost for the region. That has to happen in the next year or so, he says, because bark beetles are already damaging the trees. Several environmental groups are determined to stop it before then.
JUSTIN AUGUSTINE: Humans, when they look at a burned forest, they think it's devastation. But just the opposite happens out there in the forest.
SOMMER: Justin Augustine is an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit group. The Forest Service plans to leave four to six dead trees per acre for wildlife to use, but Augustine says that's not enough.
AUGUSTINE: The more severe a fire is, the better that area's going to be for Black-backed Woodpeckers.
SOMMER: The Forest Service says it's trying to balance both sides. Some areas won't be logged but others will. The controversy is likely to continue with the next question the agency faces - whether to replant young trees to speed along recovery. The Forest Service's Maria Benech says there are huge patches of dead trees in the Rim Fire and seeds could take a long time to spread.
MARIA BENECH: Yeah, I mean, we estimate it could take centuries, you know, a couple centuries to really get that, you know, back in because there's no seed source.
SOMMER: Young tree seedlings are usually planted densely - 10 feet apart in rows. It's been done this way in the West for decades, but it has its pitfalls. I visited a tree plantation, as they're called, last fall. It had been planted after fires in 1987. The trees were completely scorched. The densely packed foliage had helped the Rim Fire spread.
BENECH: People have criticized how close we planted trees but the idea all along was to come in year seven, year ten and thin those out.
SOMMER: But it takes money to cut trees and thin a forest. The Forest Service had made plans to do it but hadn't gotten the funds yet. Without that, the replanted trees went from restoration to liability.
MALCOLM NORTH: Plantations are really prone to burning up.
SOMMER: Malcolm North says there may be a better way to replant trees after wildfires. He's a research scientist with the Forest Service. He says researchers have learned a lot about how Sierra Nevada Forest once looked before Smokey Bear and decades of fire suppression.
NORTH: But what we now know is that we want to eventually produce trees that have kind of a clumped and opening a groupie, gappy type of structure.
SOMMER: North says trees could be planted in a way that mimics that natural pattern - in clumps instead of rows. That could make them more resilient to future fires. There's still a lot to learn about how to do that type of restoration, but that's the silver lining of the Rim Fire. With such a high-profile event, comes the opportunity to learn from it. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.