• Michael J. Kieffer

The Log Hotel

With all the fires occurring year after year on the western side of the continental United States, it seemed a good time to revisit an article I wrote years ago. My daughter is now 15 and past crawling around the floor with me (even though I am not), but the concepts are as valid today as they were when this was written over a decade ago.

Dead snag at Leopold's Preserve

However, the intensity of fires occurring today due to some of the factors outlined below, as well as many others, has led to the complete loss of all vegetation above ground and thus there is no argument as to what should be done with the standing trees. How this will affect tree regeneration, especially in light of what could be the loss of the underground network of fungi, bacteria etc. is an experiment running without a lead scientist due to human-led forest management decisions of the past century.

“I was recently reading Log Hotel, by Anne Schreiber, with my daughter. The book teaches children that the life a tree supports once dead is even greater than when the tree was alive. As we looked at the pictures, we practiced pecking like a woodpecker as we “ate” beetles that thrived in the standing dead tree. We practiced crawling like an ant in and out of “holes” in the log on the ground. Finally, we practiced moving like a worm that works to turn the remnants of the log into soil, completing the cycle. She was enthralled with the book.

The next day I was reading an article in Science that studied the effects of post-wildfire logging on forest regeneration and fire risk. For years, the view that post-fire salvage logging reduced the future fire risk and increased forest regeneration through planting dominated literature and practice. There has been a small contingent that supported an alternative view—namely, that post-fire logging was detrimental to long-term forest health, wildlife habitat, and soil development, and actually increased the fire risk. Scientific data supporting either view has been lacking, thus the importance of this paper (Donato et al. 2006).

In 2002, the Biscuit Fire in Oregon burned approximately 200,000 hectares. The site quickly became a national focus of post-fire management issues due to its size, the region’s historic reforestation difficulties, and an ambitious post-fire logging proposal. It was a long-awaited opportunity to study conifer regeneration and fuel in logged and unlogged replicated plots across the fire area.

The team’s results reinforced the argument that post-fire logging removes naturally seeded conifers, increases surface fuel loads, and can be counterproductive to forest regeneration and fuel reduction. On average, plots nested in unlogged areas that experienced high-severity fire had a median stocking density of 767 seedlings per hectare, primarily Douglas fir. Postfire logging reduced this recruitment by 71 percent primarily due to soil disturbance and the physical burial of seedlings by woody material during logging operations. Replanting then resulted in no net gain in early conifer establishment.

A red-bellied woodpecker drilling at a dead snag. Photo by Mike Belknap

In addition, post-fire logging significantly increased downed woody fuel loads, as many branches (unmerchantable) are left behind. In the short term, fire risk increases unless logging is coupled with costly mitigation efforts including prescribed burns of the unmerchantable material or physical removal. The authors then postulated that “the lowest fire risk strategy may be to leave dead trees standing as long as possible (where they are less available to surface flames), allowing aerial decay and slow, episodic input to surface fuel loads over decades.”

As one can imagine this landmark study generated serious sparks especially since Congress had two bills pending to make it easier for companies to do salvage logging in national forests. After the paper was published online by Science, John Sessions, a forest modeler at Oregon State University (OSU), and eight co-authors from OSU and the U.S. Forest Service, wrote a letter to Science about what they called “serious shortcomings in the paper.” The group asked Science to delay printing the paper. (For the non-science geek, most journals publish online before the print version hits the newsstand to speed up a paper’s turn around and give us geeks a running start.) The paper appeared on schedule. Science Editor-in-Chief Don Kennedy said “we have confidence in our peer-review decision. I think it’s fairly clear [the letter] was an effort to suppress a paper” (Stokstad, 2006).

Dead logs bring new life. Photo by Mike Belknap

This paper provides strong evidence that salvage logging may not be the best practice in the fire-prone west, and possibly opens the door to question salvage logging in other parts of the country, including hurricane prone areas. Not what some politicians and large logging companies want to read. If we look back to where we began this story, we all learned as a child the importance of dead wood for the forest, wildlife, and soil. It is a fundamental cycle of life and death. So, where do we lose this connection to the natural world? Is it simply the money? Maybe, but why then do so many property owners pay companies millions of dollars a year to clean up their backyards after a storm or when a tree dies naturally? If a tree poses no danger of hitting your house, maybe we should let it stand and fall on its own and then leave it for the wildlife and soil.

What are we teaching our children when they learn the importance of a natural process and then witness their elders eliminate not only the standing dead tree but all evidence that it even existed? The dumps get larger, while our woodlots begin to starve. I guess we are really teaching to do as I say, not as I do. It is time to leave our anal retentiveness indoors and leave some of the outdoors alone.”

References: Donato, D.C. et al. Post-Wildfire Logging Hinders Regeneration and Increases Fire Risk. Science. 311, 352 (2006). Stokstad, Erik. Salvage Logging Research Continues To Generate Sparks. Science. 311, 761(2006)

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