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January 12, 2006

Sometimes Post-Wildfire Logging Hinders Regeneration and Increases Fire Risk

There was a lot of news coverage this week of a new study from Oregon State University suggesting that post-fire logging may not be as benign an activity as often billed. See FSEEE's Jan 6-9 Forest Service in the News Archive.

{Jan. 23 Update}: A link to the now-published Science article

Here is one of the articles coving the story:

Wildfire-Ravaged Forests Hurt by Post-Blaze Logging, Study Says
Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
January 5, 2006

As U.S. wildfires rage, so does debate over how to help burned timberlands bounce back.

Some experts tout "salvage logging"—cutting down remaining trees and selling the wood—to help forests regenerate. But a new study suggests that sometimes Mother Nature does a better job on her own.

Along with colleagues, Daniel Donato, a graduate student in Oregon State University's Department of Forest Science, examined the effects of salvage logging in evergreen forests torched by Oregon's notorious 2002 Biscuit Fire.

Advocates say salvage logging is necessary to clean out burned forests and stimulate new growth. Opponents, however, charge that the practice opens protected lands to logging and alters the natural balance.

Donato's data show that some sections of the Biscuit fire's decimated Douglas fir forest are actually bouncing back much more rapidly where nature was left to take its own course.

"Are these burns regenerating on their own, or do they need replanting?" Donato said. "There is a wide assumption that they need help."

"There is a very hot debate over this, but there has been no real field data. The study is about going to a high-profile fire that everyone is talking about and finding out what's really going on there," he added.

Logging Reduced Regeneration by 70 Percent

The Biscuit fire was a half-million-acre (200,000-hectare) blaze in Oregon's Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. Though controversial, logging was allowed in many parts of the landscape after the wildfire.

Donato's data, to be published in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science, revealed some surprising results.

After the 2002 blaze the researcher's team documented early conifer regeneration in both logged and nonlogged areas. They found that salvage logging had reduced natural regeneration by more than 70 percent.

"That's kind of a shocker right there," Donato said.

The report blames the lower rate of regeneration on logging equipment and the dragging of logs, which disturb the soil.

In addition, the researchers say, woody debris left behind by loggers buries new growth.

Those same woody branches and brush can become fuel for potential future blazes. As a result, logging may have increased, rather than decreased, the risk of future destructive fires in the same area, the study reports.

Loggers can, however, clear away debris through prescribed burns and other "fuel management" techniques. Such operations are costly and are not always performed after salvage logging, so they were not figured into the group's research.

"The treatments can have their own effects, and that's something that we want to study next," Donato said.

No Single Solution for Forest Growth

Stopping short of condemning all forms of salvage logging, Donato says data from many diverse forest types are still needed. One management policy won't fit all forests, he adds.

Jim Golden, deputy regional forester for the USDA Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Region, agreed.

"I've done a lot of work with reforestation, and what they reported is almost intuitive to me," Golden said from his Portland, Oregon, office.

"Particularly in these very productive Douglas fir forests [such as where the Biscuit fire occurred], if you run a hot fire through there and you have enough trees that are still standing, you will get regeneration," he said.

"If you log a site, you will lose some of that regeneration. But what concerns me is the conclusions that people might draw from that."

"If, because of this case where a fire went through and more than two years later we logged some of that area, we were to conclude that post-fire logging hurts reforestation, that would not necessarily be the case," Golden said.

"In some places the best thing to do is nothing," he continued. "But in others you have to actively intervene on the property."

More research is needed to help managers better understand post-fire recovery and identify what should be done on a case-by-case basis.

"We've stepped up research in the Forest Service to deal with post-fire recovery and try to shore up what until now has been driven by anecdote and observation," Golden said.

Forest Managers Tied to Bottom Line

Of course, management decisions can also be driven by dollars.

"Weighing the economic value of the timber that was killed against impacts to the site is exactly what the land managers are required to do when we consider something like this," Golden said.

Recovered revenue from timber can be used to help cope with a mounting backlog of forest restoration work—an important consideration, given that each year seems to bring more wildfires and tighter budgets than the last.

"We no longer have the wherewithal to do all the work that we need to do in terms of restoration in the national forests," Golden said. "The post-wildfire restoration bill is growing each year, and we think that there is a half billion [U.S.] dollars of backlog work."

In areas where the Forest Service deems restoration work necessary, logging is often the only way to foot the bill.

Yet Donato's research suggests that in some cases dollars may be saved, and forests may be best served, by avoiding salvage logging and letting the forest bounce back without human help.

"Our data suggest that we should at least be open to the possibility that [forests burned by] big fires can regenerate on their own—even in places where we least expect it," Donato said.

Posted by Dave on January 12, 2006 at 03:39 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: Forrest Fleischman

Hey Dave,

This story just got a little bit more interesting. Today the paper by Donato et. al. was printed in the print edition of Science (previously it was only published online). According to today's Oregonian, a group of scientists at Oregon State wrote to Science Magazine asking Science to withold the publication of the article. Science politely declined, saying that the article had already passed through peer review, and that if the scientists wished to respond, they could do so after the article was published. Science editor Don Kennedy said, "That's the way scientists handle disputes, not by censorship." Rumors are that the lack of quotes from Donato et. al. is due to their being ordered by the University to stop talking to the press. The article (as well as the letter from the OSU faculty) is online at: http://www.oregonlive.com/news/oregonian/index.ssf?/base/news/1137729313106480.xml&coll=7

It must be embarrassing that these scientists feel that the only means they have to combat research that disagrees with their paradigms is by suppressing it.

Forrest Fleischman | Jan 20, 2006 12:36:12 PM

Posted by: Dave Iverson

Thanks Forrest.

I hope that rumors of Oregon State University "gagging" Donato et al. prove false. The issue may get more interesting still if and when Donato and coauthors (and/or others) address the questions raised in the letter questioning their methods and conclusions. The letter is here: http://www.oregonlive.com/pdfs/news/sessions_letter.pdf

Dave Iverson | Jan 20, 2006 1:57:53 PM

Posted by: Sharon Friedman

Since the scientists in the letter Dave cites all work in the same field as the paper, it is a great opportunity to have this debate about what this paper really means in relation to all the experiments that have been done in SW Oregon over the past 30 years or so.

I also think it would be a great topic for scientist/public dialogue- since the desirability of salvage on federal lands is a public policy question not a strictly a scientific question.

But let's step back..some of the press around the release of this paper seems to imply that salvage of burned trees would only be a good policy choice if it is "good for the environment." Seems like federal lands have a lot of uses that aren't necessarily primarily good for the environment..say oil and gas development, recreation, harvesting special forest products. So a person could raise the question "what is it about timber harvesting (a social good) that we implicitly hold it to a higher standard than other uses of federal land?" And was that a conscious decision made through some democratic process?

Scientists and public policy analysts must frame problems before they study them. Yet the broader public is also free to question those problem framings.

If you use another problem framing then you might compare the economic and social as well as environmental, costs and benefits of salvage in SW Oregon compared to other sources of lumber and jobs. I wonder if anyone has done that, what sources of funding may be available for that kind of study and what that might say about current sources of research funding and the availability of funds to attempt to understand complex interdiscipinary problems with an interdisciplinary approach that reflects that complexity.

Sharon Friedman | Jan 25, 2006 8:50:04 AM

Posted by: dave iverson

"What is it about timber harvesting (a social good) that we implicitly hold it to a higher standard than other uses of federal land?"

Interesting question. It might be that we hold timber harvesting to a higher standard because it is embedded in, or associated with ideas like "watershed improvement," "healthy forests," "wildlife habitat improvement," "ecosystem management."

These latter ideas ARE associated with improving the environment, unlike things like oil and gas development, recreation, and harvesting special forest products.

dave iverson | Jan 25, 2006 10:57:49 AM

Posted by: Sharon Friedman

Let's compare the purpose and need for the project found in the EIS:

"The need includes:
_ Recover the economic value from burned timber
_ Reduce risk to nearby communities and forest resources from future high intensity fire
_ Revegetate burned conifer stands and other
burned plant and animal habitats"

The EIS goes on to say:
"Recover the economic value
from burned timber.
There is a need to recover merchantable timber before the commercial value of the wood is lost to eterioration. Jobs created from the sale of salvage material would be a positive impact to the local community, and when local capacity has been reached, could generate interest elsewhere in Oregon and northwest California. Although
the dominance of the timber industry has declined in recent years, it remains an important component of the local community economy.
Revenue from the sale of commercial products can help finance restoration ctivities proposed within the Recovery Area including planting,
road improvements, and others.

With the Handwerk article:

"Yet Donato's research suggests that in some cases dollars may be saved, and forests may be best served, by avoiding salvage logging and letting the forest bounce back without human help. "

But that implies that the use of timber is not really an objective and the policy question is how to let the forest grow back at lowest cost. It doesn't require new research to figure out that if time is not a constraint and some percentage of forest going back to brushfields is OK, then doing nothing is the lowest cost option.

And yet it is implicit within the article- that's what I was trying to point out. The article framed the policy problem one way and others could do so differently (as in fact the Biscuit EIS did).

Sharon Friedman | Jan 27, 2006 2:27:11 PM

Posted by: Forrest Fleischman


Have you seen the recent white paper which argues that the Biscuit logging project lost a significant amount of money for US taxpayers? You can find it online at http://www.worldwildlife.org/news/pubs/Biscuitwhitepaper.pdf

While it does not fully address your interest in a full cost-benefit accounting of the Biscuit salvage, it does provide some interesting beginning information.

Forrest Fleischman | Jan 27, 2006 2:31:30 PM

Posted by: dave iverson


I'm glad to hear that in the Biscuit Salvage an effort was made, evidently, to be truthful as to the purpose and need for the project. In many project, by contrast, the cloaking I mentioned earlier is evident. It think that such cloaking is not intentionally done to mis-lead the public, but rather is just part of the organizational culture of the Forest Service -- e.g. talk that helps get money through internal funding when necessary, talk that helps pass through internal check points re: NEPA, etc.

As per: "*Recover the economic value from burned timber.* There [are] Jobs created from the sale of salvage material would be a positive impact to the local community, and when local capacity has been reached, could generate interest elsewhere in Oregon and northwest California. Although
the dominance of the timber industry has declined in recent years, it remains an important component of the local community economy." Consider:

Randal O'Toole noted this AM on NPR radio, that we could just drop dollars out of government airplanes and create jobs by the direct and indirect impacts of that action. But I agree with O'Toole that that is not a good reason to run government programs. The Northwest is not, at least today, anything resembling a third-world country.

And what "need to recover merchantable timber before the commercial value of the wood is lost to deterioration"? The only possible argument here is that if the project is done speedily it will enhance revenues from the project. That argument I can buy, but it must be weighed and balanced against other social values.

Forrest's comment ought to be addressed as well. We are still running huge deficits on our timber program, and that is, at least in part, why we have begun to talk about ecosystem mangement, and care-taking of the public lands more than product and service production from the public lands.

dave iverson | Jan 28, 2006 10:09:26 AM

Posted by: Sharon Friedman

The EIS did not say that it would make money for the US taxpayer. The EIS said that "jobs would be a positive impact to local economies." I don't see that Randal (as Dave mentions above) would have been arguing with that, but saying if that had been the sole goal there might be other ways of getting there (but I didn't hear the story).

It is certainly a good topic for political debate which industries or activities (on or off federal land) are subsidized by the federal government to what extent and the justice inherent in that across social classes, parts of the country, and different industries. Also is there equity in the degree to which these activities are expected to have little or no negative environmental impacts?

In there equity in the amount of research effort expended in analyzing potential environmental effects of different activities (even restricted to those on federal land)? Whose values determine how much government funding goes to research on different topics? Are these allocation questions (at agencies that fund research) open to ongoing public debate and discourse?

Sharon Friedman | Jan 28, 2006 1:50:34 PM

Posted by: Tom Hinckley

Two points not mentioned in the above discussion is, first, the nature of the recommendations from the Sessions et al. (2003) report that justifies the broad application of salvage logging following intense wildfires. Their report strongly suggests that a good deal of the justification for salvage logging can be based on a more rapid biological recovery (i.e., trees) and a reduction in fire hazard. Donato et al.'s paper suggest that these goals may not be a ubiquitous outcome of salvage logging. Second, much of the additional salvage proposed for the Biscuit Fire area was in late-successional reserves -- areas specifically established for their specific wildlife value. It is unclear to me how the removal of either standing or downed coarse wood debris meets the original objective of a LSR.

Tom Hinckley | Feb 1, 2006 4:48:52 PM

Posted by: Sharon Friedman

Let’s go through the scientific information provided and see if there are alternative explanations and contexts that could lead individuals, given the same empirical evidence, to different conclusions. This isn’t a discussion of prions, nanotechnology, nor quasars. It takes no special equipment to assess, nor particular experience to understand these data. They are fundamentally about logs, dirt, baby trees, and burning sticks and logs. Most people have personal experience with many of these things- so it seems like a great case study for us to trace from scientific findings to conclusions for alternative explanations, values, and assumptions.

"Natural conifer regeneration on sites that experienced high-severity fire was variable but generally abundant, with a median stocking density of 767 seedlings per hectare, primarily of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) (Fig. 1A). Such density exceeds the regional standards for fully stocked sites, suggesting that active reforestation efforts may be unnecessary. Postfire logging subsequently reduced regeneration by 71% to 224 seedlings per hectare (Fig. 1A) due to soil disturbance and physical burial by woody material during logging operations. Thus, if postfire logging is conducted in part to facilitate reforestation, replanting could result in no net gain in early conifer establishment."

What are the characteristics of established seedlings that are desirable? A certain number? A certain diversity of species? It sounds implicity like it is regional stocking rates of Douglas-fir only.

It is relatively well known that "Seedlings of the variety menziesii normally survive best when the seed germinates on moist mineral soil, but menziesii will tolerate a light litter layer. Seedlings do not survive well, however, on heavy accumulations of organic debris." Hermann and Lavender http://www.na.fs.fed.us/Spfo/pubs/silvics_manual/Volume_1/pseudotsuga/menziesii.htm

So depending on how complete the burn is on the ground, dragging trees and exposing soil may be good for later seedling establishment. From this study we don’t know how many seedlings would be established on those areas with exposed mineral soil. We could imagine that the original 224 seedlings per hectare would be supplemented through time and we could actually end up with more seedlings on the logged areas than the unlogged. However, we simply can’t tell at this point in time. We can only tie together the things that are known in the scientific literature and have been observed over at least fifty years of wildfires and later log-dragging.

I think the Oregon scientists, in their letter, raise an exceptionally good point "6. The authors conclude that logging kills regeneration without evaluating an appropriate set of logging treatments. Treatments with the specific objective of saving natural regeneration were not tested. The logging plan was developed to salvage designated fire-killed trees, implement slash reduction where needed, and to plant to achieve the management objectives based on previous experience on these sites. If the objective had been to protect regeneration, the logging plan would likely have been different. If natural regeneration is part of the plan, the best practice is to complete all harvest and slash treatment before natural regeneration or planting begins! The study did not describe the logging methods, nor describe the transect design with respect to logging corridors or landing locations. If transects were inappropriately located, the results would be biased. This should have been identified and corrected in peer review."

Basically they seem to be saying that if you wanted to protect seedlings you would be careful how you dragged logs and the authors did not select sites where people tried to protect seedlings for their study. So it doesn’t make sense to extrapolate from sites where people didn’t try to protect seedlings to sites where people do, unless you assume that people are entirely unsuccessful in their planned activities to protect seedlings. This seems like an assumption with no citations to back it up, let along the observations of the thousands of people who have actually conducted these activities- so is that "good science?"

Finally I have to point out this sentence . "Thus, if postfire logging is conducted in part to facilitate reforestation, replanting could result in no net gain in early conifer establishment." It seems to me that folks can plant however many seedlings per hectare they want to, - including more than (767- 224) per hectare more if they wanted. Did the authors mean “if replanting occurred at the standard regional rate of x per hectare, then adding the current seedlings (224 seedlings per hectare) gives you a total less than desirable stocking (the number isn’t actually mentioned in this article that I could find.)?

I can’t help it. The way this is portrayed as "the Oregon state folks trying to quell science findings" is fairly humorous to me.

Science publishes an article saying if you drag logs across a unit, seedlings may get squashed or buried. Is this news to them? What can we expect next?

"New research shows that grazing by bovines reduces biomass- therefore science shows federal policies on grazing public lands questionable?"??

Sharon Friedman | Feb 4, 2006 11:55:33 AM

Posted by: Forrest Fleischman


You have a point. It isn't very surprising that salvage logging two or three years after a fire stifles natural regeneration. Of course you can ask many questions of the scientific data. The ones you pose are interesting - and perhaps if Sessions et. al. publish their rebuttal (rather than going through back channels as they have done) they will provide us with evidence to support some of their positions (I didn't see any in their letter).

The reason this study differs from your study that bovines reduce biomass is that the Forest Service, and the proponents of salvage logging legislation pending in congress, almost always propose salvage logging as a means of ecosystem restoration. If you read the original "Sessions Report," you will find that Sessions warned that the forest in the Biscuit region would never regenerate without massive human intervention. The Donato study is neither brilliant nor fundamentally new, but it does demonstrate that contrary to hypothesis supported by the Forest Service, several key legislators, and many of the signers of the letter (Sessions of the Sessions report also signed the letter), the forest is coming back just fine without human intervention. As Jerry Franklin said in his testimony before the House Commmittee on Resources before this whole scandal broke, salvage logging is at best a tax on ecosystem recovery. This may be a tax that society is willing to bear under some circumstances - just as society tolerates grazing on public lands in regions where it has been shown to be detrimental. But hopefully this paper will help lay to rest the myth that salvage logging has extensive ecosystem benefits.

Forrest Fleischman | Feb 8, 2006 11:43:20 AM

Posted by: Sharon Friedman

I don't know that the Forest Service specifically has globally said that "any salvage anywhere is always good for restoration." I think it perhaps may have been said that sometimes it can be.
If Donato's study showed that, in one part of one sale, logged one way and sampled within a two year period, that sometimes a specific way of doing a salvage sale can be not good for restoration, or is not the cheapest path toward restoration, that still does not prove that salvage is NEVER good for restoration or fuels treatment. It could instead be inferred that if you use practices that are known not to work, and analyze them scientifically you will have scientific evidence that they don't work.

As for me, it would be hard for me to argue that the restoration projects that would not happen without salvage are always or never a good thing in general for restoration. And I couldn't say that the potential damage from salvage treatments is always greater than the improvement from those associated projects.

If it's not an always or never thing, then isn't the good idea/bad idea discussion really about a specific salvage sale in a specific area with specific associated restoration treatments?

And for the Biscuit, the first bullet on the purpose and need was “Recover the economic value from burned timber.” So yes, Congress, Sessions and Franklin can get into a general debate about under which conditions salvage can be positive environmentally. But I would argue that all these very knowledgeable scientists' debate is irrelevant to actual salvage projects which identify “recovering value” as the purpose and need.

It seems to me that there are two very different conversations "did the Biscuit effort meet its purpose and need" and "is the bill in Congress good public policy?" It's not clear to me exactly how the Donato study sheds light on either conversation. We always knew that dragging logs can kill seedlings, and that if you don't burn piles of sticks they dry out and can contribute to fire hazards. That's why there are traditionally used practices known as "prescribed burning" that deal with leftover woody material.


Sharon Friedman | Feb 9, 2006 5:33:48 PM

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