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Sierra logging plan built on deception

Logging is not popular with the public, especially on public lands like national forests. At the same time, the public misunderstands and fears fire. The Bush administration, which has long sought to increase logging levels on national forests, took advantage of this situation on Jan. 22 by unveiling a massive Sierra Nevada logging plan under the guise of fire management.

The plan would implement a threefold increase in logging levels on Sierra Nevada national forests. It would also increase the size of trees that can be removed, from 20 inches in diameter to 30 inches, or about 8 feet in circumference.

Most trees of this size in the Sierra are well over 100 years old, and many are over 200 years old. They comprise the largest 1 percent of trees remaining in the Sierra, according to Forest Service figures. Their removal will degrade thousands of acres of spotted owl habitat and is totally unnecessary from any ecological or fire-related standpoint.



Administration officials claim that the new plan is intended to prevent severe wildfires, which they assert are destroying Sierra Nevada forests. In reality, however, the logging plan serves as yet another example of this administration’s willingness to bend or break the truth.

For example, there is not a single study in any scientific journal recommending removal of mature trees in order to mitigate fire hazard. Yet there are numerous studies that conclude the logging of mature trees will increase potential for large severe fires. Big trees are the most fire-resistant. Removing them reduces the cooling shade of the forest canopy cover, creating hotter, drier conditions. The increased sun exposure also accelerates the growth rate of flammable underbrush.




The federal government’s own National Fire Plan, for instance, concludes that “removal of large, merchantable trees from forests does not reduce fire risk and may, in fact, increase such risk.”

What’s more, the administration’s logging plan will allow clearcuts to occur again on our Sierra Nevada national forests, up to about two acres in size each. Whether it’s one 20-acre clearcut or 10 two-acre clearcuts, it’s the same damage.

In addition, the U.S. Forest Service’s own ground surveys of Sierra Nevada fires have shown that only a small percentage of the area burned over the past few years has burned severely – about 10 to 15 percent on average. In the largest recent fire, the McNally fire in Sequoia National Forest, only 8 percent of the area affected by the fire burned at high severity.

Moreover, fires of variable severity are a natural and integral part of Western forest ecosystems. Numerous wildlife species have adapted to post-fire habitat. Some species, in fact, are dependent upon severely burned forest habitat, also known as “snag forests.” Such species cannot maintain viable populations in any other habitat type.

The black-backed woodpecker is just one example. Its populations can only survive and reproduce in mixed conifer forests in which all or nearly all of the trees were recently killed by fire. This woodpecker excavates nesting cavities in dead trees and feeds upon the larvae of native bark beetles that are attracted to fire-killed conifers. One woodpecker consumes about 13,500 bark beetle larvae each year.

Forest fires can, of course, destroy homes, with tragic results; but they do not destroy forests. Regardless, Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen, through two decades of research, has determined that the only effective way to protect homes is to reduce the flammability of the home itself and its immediate surroundings within 100 to 200 feet. Anything beyond 200 feet does not help protect homes.

Cohen’s research has consistently revealed that homeowners who installed fire-retardant roofing and cleared adjacent underbrush spared their houses from harm.

Finally, the administration claims that the 30-inch diameter trees will be cut in part to raise funds to pay for brush reduction. This is another fallacy and is based upon the assumption that the Forest Service will receive over 20 cents per board foot of timber. In fact, last year they received only 3 cents per board foot on average. Taxpayers consistently lose out. Also, timber sales receipts are earmarked not for brush reduction but, typically, for more logging of larger trees.

If the Bush administration wants to increase commercial logging levels, officials should simply be honest about that. Trying to creatively package a logging plan as a fire management or home protection measure insults the intelligence of the American people.

Chad Hanson is the director of the John Muir Project, which is based in Cedar Ridge near the Tahoe National Forest. He can be reached at chadhanson@nccn.net.


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