Salvage Logging May Harm Forests

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, December 10, 2002 (ENS) - Salvage logging after windstorms can cause more damage than the original wind disturbance, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The report has implications for proposed revisions to national forest regulations that could allow a sharp increase in salvage logging operations on public lands.

Researchers from the University of Colorado (CU) based Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), have been studying the ecological effects of salvage logging following a massive tree blow down in Routt National Forest in northwestern Colorado during October 1997. Doctoral student Cristina Rumbaitis-del Rio and Professor Carol Wessman say their latest data shows that salvage logging in the aftermath of rare, hurricane force winds can hurt, not help, the health of western coniferous forests.


Salvage logging on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Oregon. (All photos by Steve Holmer, courtesy American Lands Alliance)
The catastrophic 1997 storm snapped, toppled and uprooted millions of trees on 25,000 acres in the Routt National Forest and the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. From 1999 to 2001, U.S. Forest Service officials opened up areas outside of the wilderness to salvage logging operations in hopes of accelerating forest regrowth.

But according to research by Rumbaitis-del Rio, a CU Boulder graduate student, the salvage logging made matters worse.

"The salvage logged areas look like a lunar landscape in some places," Rumbaitis-del Rio said. "The land is barren, the soil is sun baked and dry, and only weedy, disturbance loving plants seem to survive in this harsh environment."

A poster presentation on the subject by Rumbaitis-del Rio was presented this weekend at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Rumbaitis-del Rio, who has been comparing rates of forest growth in logged and unlogged blow down areas in the Routt National Forest for the past four years, said salvage logging in the blow down areas resulted in a large amount of soil erosion and the loss of soil nutrients needed to support the regrowth of trees and vegetation. The logging operations also destroyed the tree seedlings that had survived the ferocious windstorm.


Post fire salvage logging on private lands adjacent to the Plumas National Forest Recreation Area in California.
Rumbaitis-del Rio's research shows that in summer, soils in the salvage logged areas are five degrees Fahrenheit warmer on average than soils in unlogged blow down areas, where the downed trees provide shade to vegetation and tree seedlings that survived the storm.

"The blow down areas are doing just fine on their own," said Rumbaitis-del Rio.

Soils in blow down areas have a higher amount of nutrients available for plant growth than do adjacent undisturbed forest areas, the researchers found. Blow down soils contained twice as much available nitrogen, a limiting nutrient in these forests, than do undisturbed areas.

Results also show that blow down areas support a greater diversity of plants and higher density of tree seedlings. These tree seedlings are growing at a faster rate than tree seedlings in adjacent, undisturbed forest areas.

"While the blow down looks very messy and devastating, it seems that the ecosystem is adapted to deal with this disturbance quite readily," said Rumbaitis-del Rio. "From an ecosystem point of view, it's really no big deal."

Catastrophic wind disturbances may become more frequent and more destructive in the future, according to some projections of the impacts of climate change. If this occurs, forest managers will have to decide if they will log or leave disturbed areas to recover on their own.


The open landscapes left after logging operations, like this 10 year old clearcut on the Routt National Forest in Colorado, may not be able to support reforestation, due to soil degradation and a lack of nutrients.
Rumbaitis-del Rio hopes that her research will make forest managers think twice before recommending salvage logging as a mitigation tool following wind disturbance. Right now, salvage logging is often undertaken to help forests recover from catastrophic disturbances such as wind and fire, and the .

Last month, the Bush administration proposed broad changes to the federal government's management plans for U.S. national forests and grasslands. The new rules would give increased authority to federal supervisors of each of the country's 155 national forests to approve salvage logging plans, regardless of federal guidelines for protecting wildlife.

The administration has also proposed to expedite approval for salvage logging on all public lands, reducing opportunities for public comment and environmental review in the name of reducing the threat of wildfires.

Many environmental groups have compared the administration's proposal to a 1995 measure that temporarily suspended citizens' ability to take legal action against salvage logging in national forests. The infamous 1995 salvage rider galvanized the environmental community and generated a firestorm of public protest against what many analysts referred to as "logging without laws."

Critics of the forest proposals note that there is little evidence that fuel reduction projects such as logging reduce the threat of wildfires. In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that just the opposite is true.

In a letter sent to the administration this September, 21 forest researchers warned Congress and President Bush that "removal of more mature trees can increase fire intensity and severity, either immediately post-logging or after some years."


A naturally recovering burn area in the Colville National Forest in Washington state.
"These trees provide 'insurance' because they often survive surface fires and can speed post-fire recovery," the scientists said. "Even if they are diseased, dying or dead, large and old trees and snags are important to many wildlife species and ecosystem functions. Building or re-opening roads to facilitate thinning will heighten fire risks, since roads correlate with increased numbers of human started fires."

This summer, the CU study area was affected by two large fires, the Hinman fire and the Burn Ridge fire. Together, these two fires consumed more than 31,000 acres, including logged and unlogged blow down areas.

Rumbaitis-del Rio plans to continue her research in Routt National Forest in 2003, with an eye to how previous salvage logging impacts the recovery of the burned areas. One hypothesis is that fire could "reset the system," she said, in essence erasing the area's history of disturbances that happened before the burn.

"We hope to determine if salvage logged areas have trouble regenerating after the fire compared to unlogged blow down areas," Rumbaitis-del Rio said.