Climate Desk
The Lodge Fire burns in Northern California in August 2014.
The Lodge Fire burns in Northern California in August 2014.|Mark McKenna/ZUMA
Warming World

As Calif. Wildfires Burn, Controversy Grows Over the Dead Trees 

Should damaged forests be opened to logging?

Rob Hoffman

SEIAD VALLEY, Calif.—In early August, a federal logging operation came to a halt when a resident of Humboldt County was found chained to two 55-gallon barrels of concrete on a logging road in Klamath National Forest, 1.7 million acres of land straddling the California and Oregon border.

The 28-year-old forest advocate, who goes by the name Misty, was hoping to prevent loggers from moving forward on the U.S. Forest Service’s Westside Fire Recovery Project (WFRP), one of the largest and most controversial salvage logging projects in the forest’s history. Local communities and conservation groups believe that if the Forest Service completes the WFRP, it will do irreversible damage to 13,000 acres of forest, resulting in the likely death of 103 northern spotted owls, bald eagles being forced out of their habitats, and the local extinction of coho salmon.

While the practice of clearcutting dead trees to try and prevent fires isn’t new, it remains unproven in its effectiveness.

This is the latest fallout from the state’s effort to deal with the more than 60 million dead trees scattered across forests that have been crippled by years of drought. While the practice of clearcutting dead trees to try and prevent fires isn’t new, it remains unproven in its effectiveness. In recent months the outcry over the California logging has escalated, as critics weigh in on what they see as the weak points in the policy.

As High Country News recently reported, “a task force has identified high-hazard areas in both privately and publicly owned forests totaling 6.3 million acres—more than double the combined size of Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks”:

The computer-generated hazard-tree maps include entire watersheds where mortality exceeds 1.5%. Some are in the backcountry far from human habitation. Critics argue that this is an unacceptably low threshold that poses unacceptably high risks to forests. It could lead to logging in old-growth forests and other stands that are still healthy and not severely impacted by drought, thereby threatening wildlife diversity and disturbing ground cover that nourishes an array of plants and animals.
High Country News

As California increasingly feels the impacts of climate change and becomes hotter and drier, wildfires will become even more of a costly concern. This summer has seen a series of fires up and down the state cause evacuations and extensive damage to infrastructure and ecosystems.

A study published this week in the journal Climatic Change found that a climate change-driven surge in major wildfire events across the West will expose tens of millions of Americans to high levels of air pollution in the coming decades.

“Our study illustrates that smoke waves are likely to be longer, more intense, and more frequent under climate change,” Jia Coco Liu, a recent Ph.D. graduate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “This raises critical health, ecological, and economic concerns. Identifying communities that will be most affected in the future will inform development of fire management strategies and disaster preparedness programs.”

Dead Tree Logging

On March 3, the Karuk Tribe and four conservation groups filed a joint lawsuit against the Forest Service in condemnation of the WFRP, which they believe violates federal law. But the Forest Service is pushing to finish clearcutting this summer before the court can reach a verdict. Forest defenders like Misty have responded by organizing non-violent protests to keep loggers out of the forest long enough for the courts to reach a decision on the lawsuit.

The on-the-ground standoff began in May, when several dozen forest defenders and Karuk Tribal members organized a blockade in the middle of the night to prevent loggers from entering their project site. Then, on July 14, the situation escalated when another group of forest defenders organized at the Grider Creek Campground to protest clearcuts that are laying waste to a popular Pacific Crest Trail access point.

Misty described the recent confrontation between him and the Forest Service, saying that police arrived on the scene and forced him to unlock by using pain coercion.

“Almost instantaneously there was five cops all doing pain compliance holds everywhere around my upper body,” he said. “At one point the lieutenant grabbed my face with both hands and dug all of his fingers around my jaw bone, using it as a handle to pull me up off the ground.”

The Forest Service refused to comment on the incident at this time.

Though Misty was unable to complete his protest, he says this is merely the beginning of an “escalating campaign of protests” against loggers, including a number of protests that are likely to unfold this week leading up to a large public rally on August 22.

Kerul Dyer, communications director for Klamath Riverkeeper, a group devoted to protecting and restoring the Klamath Basin, said the public rally will most likely be held at the Yreka Office of the Klamath National Forest and will be attended by a wide base of forest and river advocates, as well as concerned members of the public.

Dyer said that these growing protest efforts against the WFRP have garnered the attention of larger NGO groups like Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network, who have reached out to show their support.

Dyer hopes that, along with the outcome of the lawsuit, these protests could set an important precedent against the government’s increasing effort to log California’s 66 million dead trees. Though the Forest Service has justified these logging efforts by appealing to the intuitive assumption that these dead trees pose a fire hazard, many scientists agree the science is not so clear cut, and that these trees should instead be left in the ground to let the forest regenerate naturally.

As ecologist Chad Hanson noted in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, the real reason for these logging efforts is likely because the U.S. Agriculture Department “can sell dead trees, as well as trees the department claims are dying, to private logging companies from our national forests and other federal lands, and keep 100% of the revenue through salvage sale fund.”

California Gov. Jerry Brown has already organized a task force to potentially log more than 6 million acres of post-wildfire forest. Even more shockingly, a researcher recently funded by the Forest Service, Greg Asner, stated in the San Francisco Chronicle that new technology “will give the agencies a chance to be less reactive” and allow them to preemptively log trees which are still alive, but are expected to die in the future.

According to Dyer, the Karuk Tribe proposed a very reasonable alternative fire restoration plan that included more sustainable logging methods, “and the Forest Service completely ignored that and went for this heavy handed clearcutting approach. And as long as they keep doing that, activists are going to keep emerging and the controversy is going to continue to elevate.”