When a severe wildfire burns through a forest community the aftermath is often nothing more than blackened trees and bare gray soil. For land managers concerned with extracting economic value from a forest, these burned trees mean a loss of logging profits. However, in some cases lumber can still be obtained from burned trees if harvested shortly after a fire before decay sets in. If the cost of logging operations and trucking don’t outweigh the price of the damaged timber, then some economic benefit may be realized through a post-fire timber harvest operation, often called “salvage logging”.
On public lands though, the economic values are not the only values that deserve consideration. As hunters and anglers, we value healthy streams, habitats, and wildlife populations which, in the west, are adapted to and often depend upon regular wildfires. Having spent so much time in our backcountry we know that within a short time after a fire the cycle of re-growth begins. Green shoots can pop up within weeks from shrubs with deep roots that survive a fire. The next spring after a fire morels might poke up through the ashy forest floor, and soon seedlings begin to sprout from seeds shed by trees that survived the burn or from pine cones that actually require fire to open and release their seeds. Beetles arrive in burned areas, sometimes within hours after the fire has passed through, followed by woodpeckers, and both species start the slow process of decomposing the dead trees. As the forest continues to re-grow becoming rich with plant life once again, more wildlife returns and the forest ecosystem continues to roll along on its cycle of growing and burning in a demonstration of remarkable resilience and adaptation to fire.
As resilient as western landscapes are to fire, the ecological system supporting forest regeneration after a burn is quite delicate and when pieces of this system are damaged, the regrowth of a forest can be slowed or shifted into a different habitat type altogether. One of the key parts of this system is the soil. If the forest is a house, then the soil is the foundation. A good soil foundation is an ecosystem in and of itself with uncountable microorganisms, organic matter, differing textures and types of minerals, varying moisture contents, temperatures, and nutrients. Soil ecosystems may not be very charismatic or appreciated by most people but their health is hugely important to growing rich habitats on our landscape and so in many ways, to protect habitat and wildlife after a fire is to protect the soil so that the intricate patterns of forest regeneration that have been working for thousands of years can continue unimpaired.
Which brings us back to salvage logging. Salvage logging has often been touted as providing economic and ecological benefits to burned areas, and justified by claims that removing dead trees is important for reducing the risk of reburning and that it cleans up the mess left by the fire, promoting forest health and regeneration. However, research does not support these claims of ecological benefit. In fact, the science shows that the ecological impacts of salvage logging are quite negative, first and foremost because of the damage salvage logging operations cause to the soil. Road construction and heavy machinery disrupts and compacts soil, physically damaging its delicate layering. Logging operations can also cause significant loss of topsoil through soil erosion. Removing standing dead trees and logs eliminates the shade they provide, leaving the ground hotter and drier and thus less suitable for the germination and growth of tree seedlings. Removing decaying trees and logs also alters nutrient cycling and the organic content of the soil. In damaged soils, invasive weeds can gain the upper hand. The foundation of the ecosystem is weakened and as a result forest regeneration is slowed or even altered so that the kinds of plants growing there reflect drier conditions rather than the original habitat type. In addition to damaging the soil, logging burned forests takes away the main structural component of a post-fire landscape. Woodpeckers lose feeding and nesting habitat and wildlife returning to burned areas in the years after a burn lose the protective cover provided by logs and standing burned trees. In fact, research shows that even in salvage logged patches where food for deer and elk is abundant, deer and elk avoid the patches because the loss of cover increases risk of predation.
When salvage logging operations are proposed on public lands, let’s go into the decision with eyes wide open. Yes, there can be economic benefits to salvage logging, but no, ecological benefits cannot be used as justification. Salvage logging is by no means a win-win situation, so when the issue comes up, as hunters and anglers we must consider whether the economic benefits outweigh the ecological cost of salvage logging on our public lands.