Forest Carbon Coalition – Science Synthesis

Why is salvage logging unjustified from a climate, biodiversity, or economic standpoint?

Logging an area following wildfire (also insect infestation or windthrow) can disturb and compact soils and reduce vegetative cover, increasing the risk of erosion and accelerated runoff. Salvage logging also can decrease biodiversity in the affected area and/or interoduce invasive species.

Salvage logging generally is not an effective or efficient mechanism for reducing risks from future wildfires. Absent site-specific evidence to the contrary, it would be reasonable to expect that the fire reduced the amount of fuel (burnable organic matter) in the burned area and available for a future fire. The trees killed by the fire, themselves, generally do not constitute a substantial wildfire risk because, if a wildfire subsequently entered the area, they likely would burn at lower intensities than would occur if they were still alive.

Salvage logging likely will increase, not decrease, atmospheric carbon dioxide. Field studies of wildfires that affected more than 640,000 acres in California found that the fires burned primarily smaller vegetation, and nearly all of the carbon present in live, large trees before the fires remained on-site after the fires. Research in Oregon has shown that, if salvage logging does not occur, the aboveground carbon stored in the fire area persists for decades, but the amount of carbon the forest stores away from the atmosphere declines significantly in areas where salvage logging has occurred.

The costs salvage logging imposes on federal forest-management agencies can far exceed their timber-sale revenues, leaving them with fewer resources for post-fire restoration and conservation The costs—from preparing timber sales, overseeing the logging, and cleaning up the logging mess—often are much higher than those for other timber sales, because the scale and technical difficulties of salvage sales overwhelm the agencies’ capabilities. The revenues often are extraordinarily low, because the urgency in completing the sales eliminates competition from some potential buyers and gives those remaining (sometimes only one) clearance to buy the logs at rock-bottom prices.

Salvage logging on federal lands often stimulates no local increase in timber industry jobs. Instead, as federal logs flood the local market and drive log prices down, other landowners stop selling logs until the salvage surge tapers off. Mills might have no capacity to increase output. The net effect may be no change in market activity, and no increase in jobs.

Key research on the negative effects of salvage logging:

Sorvino, C., 2018. A Billion-Dollar Fortune from Timber and Fire. Forbes online May 14th, 2018.

Link: https://www.forbes.com/feature/archie-emmerson-timber-forest-fires-logging/#3e25512f64f9.

Key excerpts:

  • “[L]ogging in national forests is costly for taxpayers, says [biologist, Chad] Hanson, who estimates they are on the hook for $1 billion a year, at least $500 million of which is directly related to post-fire salvage.”
  • “That’s the amount the government pays to build roads to remote areas destroyed by fires and for herbicides the forest service sprays prior to logging to make clear-cutting easier, among other costs. Meanwhile, the federal government pulls in about $150 million annually from selling the timber in national forests, about one fourth of which comes from post-fire logging.”
  • “It’s a bad deal financially for taxpayers, but it’s a great deal for the mills,” says economist Ernie Niemi, who has studied the impact of forest management since the 1970s. “It’s very hard to justify any salvage logging. It’s like they’re bandits.”

Prats, S.A., Malvar, M.C., Wagenbrenner, J.W., 2021. Compaction and cover effects on runoff and erosion in post‐fire salvage logged areas in the Valley Fire, California. Hydrological Processes 2021;35:e13997.

Link: https://doi.org/10.1002/hyp.13997.

Key excerpts:

  • “We carried out rainfall simulations after a high-severity wildfire and post-fire salvage logging to assess the effect of compaction (uncompacted or compacted by skid traffic during post-fire salvage logging) and surface cover (bare or covered with logging slash).”
  • “Runoff after 71 mm of rainfall across two 30-min simulations was similar for the bare plots regardless of the compaction status (mean 33 mm). In comparison, runoff in the slash-covered plots averaged only 22 ”
  • “Sediment yield totalled 460 and 818 g m−2 for the uncompacted and compacted bare plots, respectively, and slash significantly reduced these amounts by an average rate of 71%.”
  • “Our results showed that soil erosion was still high two years after the high severity burning and the effect of soil compaction nearly doubled soil erosion via nonsignificant increases in runoff and sediment concentration.”

Kauffman, J.B., Ellsworth, L.M., Bell, D.M., Acker, S.,; Kertis, J., 2019. Forest structure and biomass reflects the variable effects of fire and land use 15 and 29 years following fire in the western Cascades, Oregon. Forest Ecology and Management. 453: 117570-.

Link:  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2019.117570.

Key excerpts:

  • “We quantified total aboveground biomass and composition in forest stands following low, moderate, and high severity fires 15 (2002 Apple Fire) and 29 years (1991 Warner Creek Fire) following fire in low elevation, old-growth forests dominated by Douglas-fir.”
    “We also sampled postfire responses in forest plantations (harvested prior to fire) and salvage-logged sites (harvested after fire) from the same fires.”
  • “In spite of differences in overstory mortality, there was no significant difference in the TAGB between the low, moderate and high severity fires 15 years following fire (Apple Fire).”
  • “Similarly, there was no significant difference between the low and high severity burns 29 years following fire (Warner Creek Fire).”
  • “Managed forests (salvage and plantations) had significantly lower post-fire aboveground biomass and carbon storage that the natural forests.”
  • “The TAGB of salvage logged sites was 49% and 42% that of the high severity sites at the Apple Fire and Warner Creek Fire, respectively.”
  • “The mean TAGB of plantations was lowest of all fire and land use scenarios. At the Warner Creek Fire, TAGB of the plantations were <30% of that of the high severity fire sites (e.g. 326 and 984 Mg ha−1, respectively).”