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Logging Green Lit for 52 Square Miles of Rim Fire Burn Area Near Yosemite

Rim Fire, five percent contained on August 22 2013 | Photo: U.S. Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service has issued a tentative decision on its controversial plan to log tens of thousands of acres of forest burned in 2013's Rim Fire, and that decision will not please wildlife preservationists.

A Proposed Record of Decision on the Rim Fire Recovery Plan released Wednesday by Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor Susan Skalski would approve so-called "salvage" logging on 15,375 acres just west of the boundary of Yosemite National Park. Removal of "hazard trees" would cover another 17,706 acres.

In the proposal, Skalski describes the justifications for the project, which include "enhancing wildlife habitat" and reducing public safety hazards. First among those objectives, according to Skalski, is the Recovery Plan's intent to "capture economic value through salvage logging."

Together, the salvage and hazard tree logging areas cover 33,081 acres, a significant reduction from the 43,518 acres of logging originally proposed under the plan.

"Time is of the essence," writes Skalski;

since the Rim Fire started just over one year ago, and the trees killed by the fire have already lost substantial economic value. With every passing day, the deterioration process will continue, to the point that it becomes economically infeasible to conduct the project. Therefore, it is imperative to begin implementing the project in the upcoming weeks and months to maximize the amount of work that can be achieved before this year's operating season ends in the late fall.

The Rim Fire, which burned about 400 square miles of Sierra Nevada forests in August and September 2013, has entered the record books as California's largest conifer forest fire. (San Diego's 2003 Cedar Fire and the 2012 Rush Fire in Lassen County covered more area, but neither burned exclusively in forested areas.)

Under the decision proposed by Skalski, logging would begin in the next few weeks, and continue during the Sierra Nevada's May-October logging window for as long as five years, though most of the timber harvest would be finished by the end of 2015.

Why the rush to start this year? Skalski fears the burned trees might be going bad:

The Rim Fire started just over one year ago, and reports from the field indicate that it is no longer economically feasible to cut and remove trees less than sixteen inches in diameter, due to the deterioration within such trees. With each passing month, that minimum salvageable diameter will increase, and more units of the Rim Recovery project will become economically infeasible to treat. At this point, only a few months are left in this year's operating season. Due to the current condition of the timber and the progressive deterioration process, beginning operations in the upcoming weeks is critical to ensuring the cost-effective implementation of this project.

As we've reported in the months since the Rim Fire, burned forests in the Sierra Nevada are increasingly thought to offer crucial habitat for species at some risk of decline, including the California spotted owl and the black-backed woodpecker.

While Skalski recognizes the value to such wildlife of burned forest habitat, she says that logging will cover less than 30 percent of the national forest lands burned in the Rim Fire, that climate change will likely mean a lot more burned forest in the Sierra Nevada, and that she had to make a hard choice between the black-backed woodpecker and local herds of deer that might be inconvenienced by falling burned trees.

It's nearly certain that environmental groups will sue over the logging plan in an attempt to keep tree felling from starting before the end of this year's season. We'll keep you posted.

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