Salvage logging, or post-fire logging, is a long practiced yet scientifically unsupported method of forest management. Often cited as a necessary management tool for aiding in forest restoration following a wildfire, salvage logging can actually accomplish the opposite result by increasing the fire hazard, degrading water quality, and impairing the habitat and ecological function of the forest.
Salvage Logging Increases the Fire Risk
The Forest Service and private timber companies often advocate on behalf of “salvaging” dead and dying standing trees for their commodity value following a wildfire event. Post-fire logging extracts these merchantable burned trees and leaves behind the smallest trees which happen to have little commercial value and increase the fire danger. Salvage logging increases the fire risk by adding materials such as tree tops, limbs, needles, and other by-products of these massive logging operations to the forest floor, thus increasing the available fuel for ignition by the next fire.
Post-fire and post-disturbance logging may increase the reburn potential of a forest by concentrating flammable slash, such as small branches, near the ground. The largest, most fire-resistant snags and tree trunks, which provide perching, nesting and feeding sites for wildlife, are removed by post-fire logging.
Impacts of Wildlife and Ecological Processes
Post-fire logging also disrupts natural ecological processes, threatens the habitat of wildlife species, and reduces water quality. Post-fire logging hinders forest regeneration and restoration by compacting soils, damaging riparian corridors, introducing and spreading invasive species, causing erosion, adding sediment to streams, degrading water quality, and removing trees utilized for habitat.
In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Resources (November 10, 2005), eminent forest ecologist and University of Washington Professor Jerry Franklin noted that logging dead trees often has greater negative impacts than logging of live trees. He concluded that “timber salvage is most appropriately viewed as a ‘tax’ on ecological recovery.” A full discussion of the issues are well articulated in the recent book Salvage Logging and Its Ecological Consequences by David Lindenmayer, Philip Burton, and Jerry Franklin (Island Press, 2008). The authors conclude, "Salvage logging and other post-disturbance practices can have profound negative impacts on ecological processes and biodiversity."
No substantive scientific evidence supports the idea that fire-adapted forests might be improved by logging following a fire event. In fact, recent evidence concludes just the opposite by maintaining that most plants and animals in these forests are adapted to periodic fires and other natural disturbances and that they have a remarkable way of recovering because they have evolved with and even depend upon fire.
Scientific Thinking on Salvage Logging and Reforestation is changing rapidly...
Key findings from recent research:
1) In Shatford, et. al. 2007, Conifer Regeneration after Forest Fire in the Klamath-Siskiyous: How Much, How Soon?, published in the Journal of Forestry (Society of American Foresters), the authors discussed the success of conifer regeneration after forest fires in northern California with no salvage logging and only natural regeneration (re-growth of forests). Specifically they found that:
"...our findings suggest that the prognosis for achieving reasonable conifer densities is fair to excellent, even on sites with high cover of broad-leaved shrubs and hardwoods. Although conifer growth may be delayed by competition over the short term, benefits in terms of wildlife habitat and site-fertility should be considered."
"...assertions that burned areas, left unmanaged will remain unproductive for some indefinite period seems unwarranted."
"In contrast to expectations, generally, we found natural conifer regeneration abundant across a variety of settings."
2) In Donato et. al. 2006, Post-Fire Logging Hinders Regeneration and Increases Fire Risk, in the journal Science the authors determined that:
"Our data show that postfire logging by removing naturally seeded conifers and increasing surface fuel loads, can be counterproductive to goals of forest regeneration and fuels reduction. The results presented suggest that post logging may conflict with ecosystem recovery goals."
"Postfire logging subsequently reduced regeneration by 71% (767 seedlings per hectare to 224 seedlings per hectare) due to soil disturbance and physical burial by woody material during logging operations."
"Postfire logging significantly increased both fine and coarse woody fuel loads...this pulse far exceeded expectations for postfire logging generated fuel loads."
3) Swanson et al (2010): "Naturally regenerated ESFEs [early successional forest ecosystems] are likely to be better adapted to the present day climate and may be more adaptable to future climate change. The diverse genotypes in naturally regenerated ESFEs are likely to provide greater resilience to environmental stresses than nursery-grown, planted trees of the same species."
'Prompt, dense reforestation can have negative consequences for biodiversity and processes associated with early successional forest ecosystems."
Read more about reforestation and salvage logging impacts, and listen to interview with Craig Thomas on Capitol Radio, June 12, 2007
Salvage Logging Science
Beschta, R.L., et.al. 1995. Wildfire and Salvage Logging: Recommendations for Ecologically Sound Post-Fire Salvage Logging and Other Post-Fire Treatments on Federal Lands in the West. Pacific Rivers Council. Eugene, OR. 14 pp. (361KB PDF)
Lindenmayer, D.B., and K. Ough. 2006. Salvage Logging in the Montane Ash Eucalypt Forests of the Central Highlands of Victoria and Its PotentialImpacts on Biodiversity. Conservation Biology, 20(4) 1005–1015. (237KB PDF)
Lindenmayer, D.B., P. Burton, and J. Franklin. 2008. Salvage Logging and Its Ecological Consequences. Island Press.
McIver, J.D., and R. Ottmar. 2007. Fuel Mass and Stand Structure After Post-fire Logging of a Severely Burned Ponderosa Pine Forest in Northeastern Oregon. Forest Ecology and Management 238, 268–279. (857KB PDF)
Peterson, David L. et al. 2009. Effects of timber harvest following wildfire in western North America. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-776. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 51 p. (817 KB PDF)