Rim Fire recovery plan calls for little salvage logging

Issue Date: September 3, 2014
By Kate Campbell
Overstocking of trees in the Stanislaus National Forest has been cited for the Rim Fire’s explosive spread across nearly 260,000 acres.
Photo/Kate Campbell

In the aftermath of the Rim Fire—the largest conifer forest fire in California history—recovery plans for the Stanislaus National Forest were issued last week, drawing criticism from agricultural and timber interests, and from some environmental groups as well.

The federal recovery plan was finished in about a year and included consideration of four alternative approaches to addressing damage on about 260,000 acres of public and private forestland.

"The path to reaching this decision was not an easy one, and I found no simple solution that can fully achieve all the goals that I, the Forest Service, and members of the public have for (recovery in) the Rim Fire area," Susan Skalski, Stanislaus National Forest supervisor, said in the introduction to the 75-page plan.

In some instances, she said public safety goals are in tension with environmental protection goals; in other instances, socio-economic goals are in direct tension with fuel reduction goals; and in other instances, the needs of one wildlife species are in tension with the needs of another.

"Recognizing that no perfect decision exists, I did my best to balance all these important goals, with the intent of providing a decision that best serves the public interest," she said.

She said a plan called "Modified Alternative 4," which scales back salvage logging in the burn area from the original proposal to log 30,000 acres to just 15,000 acres, "strikes a reasonable balance" and will be more practical to implement. Essentially, the plan calls for the great majority of the burned land to recover on its own, with minimal management.

Sasha Farkas, who operates a forest thinning and brush-management business in Tuolumne County, noted that the Preferred Alternative 4 would have allowed salvage logging on 30,000 acres, which he called "a small fraction of the damage—15,000 acres of salvage logging is inadequate."

"Without the harvesting and land clearing, you can't replant and regrow the forest," said Farkas, who is a California Farm Bureau Federation director. "So for future generations, there's not going to be a forest there."

In addition to salvage timber harvesting, the plan includes 325 miles of hazardous-tree removal; no new, permanent roads; wildlife habitat corridors tailored to benefit California spotted owls, great gray owls and northern goshawks; and retention of more than 20 tons of dead wood per acre to provide wildlife habitat.

Calforests President David Bischel said experts affiliated with his organization are going over the adopted plan, but he commended the Forest Service "for putting together a (recovery plan) for the Rim Fire within the targeted time frame while keeping a transparent and open process."

Bischel said members of his association are "eager to see treatments implemented that help restore the burned areas of the forest" and that reduce threats to public safety posed by the standing dead trees created by the fire.

"Forest management activities need to be completed in a timely manner for the best possible outcome that contributes to restoration of our forestlands and balances the environmental, social and economic benefits they provide, including a continuous source of cold, clear drinking water," Bischel said.

Dan Tomascheski, vice president of Sierra Pacific Industries, said the company has been studying the return of riparian vegetation after fires and assessing which species are successful during various periods of time.

Most do "OK," he said, "but alder isn't coming back," and that's a concern because alder benefits microscopic organisms that live in streambeds.

"This argues for more active management of riparian zones, post-fire, for instance planting alder and spacing out other species, rather than leaving zones to recover on their own," Tomascheski said.

Farkas noted that, without any work on the land, the burned area is "never going to be a forest again. It's going to be brush fields."

He pointed out that studies show chaparral and brush use three times more water than conifer forests, and that areas left from the 1986 Complex Fire in the same area where the Rim Fire broke out were taken over by brush.

"As a result, we had a much more fire-prone landscape and reduced flows in the watershed," he said. "Bad management and bad solutions mean those who use the forest for recreation, and the people of Tuolumne County who count on the forest for jobs, will lose those benefits. But, really, every Californian has a stake in effective recovery of the Stanislaus National Forest."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.