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Rim Fire Logging May Endanger Rare Woodpecker

Black-backed woodpecker near Yuba Pass | Photo: mahoolyoak/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A plan by the U.S. Forest Service to allow "salvage" logging of almost 30,000 acres of forest burned in 2013's Rim Fire poses an unacceptable risk to a rare woodpecker that relies on habitat created by forest fires.

That's according to a new report by the Center For Biological Diversity (CBD) and the John Muir Project (JMP) detailing the importance of fires to the health of Sierra Nevada forests, as well as the animals and plants that call those forests home.

The salvage logging plan proposed for more than 45 square miles in Stanislaus National Forest would be one of California's largest in recent years. The Los Angeles Times reports that USFS will be seeking an "emergency" declaration that shortcuts some of the project's environmental review. But the USFS's own science has undermined the rationale for timber salvage harvests in the wake of big fires, say CBD and JMP, describing the dramatic Rim Fire as a boon to the health of the greater Yosemite ecosystem.

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"The Rim fire provided many environmental benefits," said JMP's Chad Hanson, a research ecologist. "Most significantly, the high-intensity fire areas created critical wildlife habitat -- a habitat that is even rarer and more threatened than old-growth forest." (By way of full disclosure: the John Muir Project is a project of Earth Island Institute, which employed me as the editor of its Earth Island Journal for the better part of a decade.)

Potential logging sites in the Stanislaus National Forest | Map: USFS

The Rim Fire, thought to have been sparked by a hunter's illegal campfire on Aug. 17, 2013, gained global attention as it burned more than 255,000 acres in Yosemite National Park, the adjacent Stanislaus National Forest, and on nearby private land. USFS's timber harvest would be confined to the Stanislaus National Forest, and would open up about a fifth of the National Forest's 154,000-plus burned acres to salvage logging -- and the road building, industrial machinery, and soil compaction that industrial logging brings with it.

Salvage logging after forest fires is often justified as a way to reduce dead timber that could add fuel to subsequent fires. But as administered by USFS in California, salvage harvests often focus on large standing trees, some of which have actually survived the fires that prompt the harvests. Those are the trees that are more economically attractive to timber companies. Smaller-diameter trees are often left behind in "slash piles" that actually increase the risk of later fires.

As scientists found in the later decades of the 20th Century, Sierra Nevada forests evolved to tolerate and even rely on periodic fires in order to clean out undergrowth. Early modern fire suppression policies have damaged the long-term health of many western forests. And species like the black-backed woodpecker depend on habitat types that develop in the wake of fires, which means that burned areas such as the patchwork of damage left behind by the Rim Fire are actually prime habitat for those species.

The black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) depends on recently burned areas for an important food source: the wood-boring beetle larvae that colonize stands of damaged trees. The birds use hollows in dead timber for nesting, and their black plumage may well have evolved in part as camouflage against charred tree trunks.

That means that the health of the Sierra Nevada black-backed woodpecker population depends on there being regular fires in the range to provide the patchwork of different successional habitats -- "complex early seral forests" -- that provide the species with what it needs to survive. A century and a half of fire suppression efforts in the Sierra Nevada have reduced black-backed numbers to the point where it's being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Far from harming the Sierra Nevada's forests, say the groups, the Rim Fire served as an inadvertent act of ecological restoration, creating the potential for those complex early seral forests in varied patches across hundreds of square miles of the range, especially including the approximately 240 square miles of conifer forests that the fire passed through:

The fire had wide-ranging effects in these conifer forest areas, with patches varying from no mortality to some or even complete tree mortality. As a result the Rim fire created a mosaic of fire severities across the landscape, thereby helping to mitigate the extreme historic fire deficit that exists in the Sierras. Thirty-three percent of the conifer forest burned at high intensity, 23 percent at moderate intensity, and 44 percent at low or no-intensity.

Other species that benefit from forest fires and the ecological processes that follow them include mule deer, fishers, tree-roosting pallid bats, a number of songbirds, and shrubs including manzanitas and ceanothus.

CBD and JMP's report concedes that fire-damaged trees may well pose a public safety hazard. However, the groups maintain, such hazards can be addressed effectively without embarking on a salvage logging program.

Because dead trees adjacent to frequently used areas such as campgrounds and well-traveled roads might fall on people, it can be necessary to fell some of those trees. However, to the greatest extent practicable, such tree-felling should also be done in a way that will reduce harm to wildlife, such as avoiding nesting seasons. In addition, once felled, these "hazard" trees no longer pose a safety risk, and should be retained in the forest as downed logs to provide habitat for wildlife.

The public comment period in the scoping phase of the harvest plan's environmental review ended Monday: we'll keep you up to date on any opportunities to comment on draft environmental impact statements.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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