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Dead trees present big problem in forests

Experts disagree on best way to renew land after fire

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — On a common-sense level, it is obvious. When a forest burns, the trees are dead. So you cut them down, haul them to the sawmill and plant new ones. Soon the blackened hillsides will be covered with healthy green trees.

"Common sense says we need to restore habitats and watersheds for future generations," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resources Council, a timber industry group. "If we don't choose to harvest dead trees and restore ecosystems for future generations, we are going to be forced to cut live green trees, in many cases on foreign soils, to meet consumer demand."

But many scientists say those dead trees, standing and falling to the ground over time, form the very foundation of a healthy and diverse forest that will seed itself with trees uniquely suited genetically to thrive on a specific site and support a rich diversity of fish and wildlife, even if a new forest is slow to regenerate.

"What we are dealing with, to a certain extent, is a mind-set: 'That dead forest is a desert and the best thing you can do is get a closed forest back as quickly as possible,' " said Jerry Franklin, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Washington and one of the nation's leading experts on old growth forests. "We can't argue for salvage logging on the basis that it is going to do good things ecologically."

The reason for cutting the dead trees and planting new ones is to maximize production of timber, he said.

A battle that has been simmering for about 10 years is now focused on legislation in Congress that would help the U.S. Forest Service harvest burned timber and plant new forests more quickly after fires, storms and insect infestations, rather than following a planning process that can take so long that the trees are too rotten to use for lumber by the time it is completed.

The Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act from Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Brian Baird, D-Wash., would give land management agencies 30 days to evaluate the situation and come up with a plan, plus 90 days for public comment, with court challenges allowed after that.

"We want to design a system that allows for recovery of habitats faster," Walden said.

Until 1995, there was never much question what to do on national forests after a fire. Cut the dead trees and some living ones. Use the revenue to plant new ones.

That changed with the so-called Beschta Report. Written by Robert Beschta, a retired Oregon State University professor of hydrology, and seven other scientists for the Pacific Rivers Council, an environmental group, it reviewed the body of scientific research and concluded that salvage logging should be prohibited in sensitive areas because it promotes erosion and removes the big trees that are the building blocks of recovery. It advised all trees older than 150 years should be left standing, plus half of everything else, and new roads should not be built.

"There is generally no need for urgency, nor is there a universal, ecologically based need to act at all," the report said. Updated in 2004, it reached the same conclusions.

Environmentalists used it to win enough lawsuits to lead Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth to declare his frustration over "analysis paralysis" to Congress in 2002.

That frustration also led to the formation last year of a group in the heart of Oregon timber country, Communities for Healthy Forests, to press for legislation to harvest dead trees more quickly and plant new ones.

"We can't help the devastation that occurred in 2002 that has had little restoration," said Bruce Klein, chairman of the committee. "However, if policies are changed, we could expect with rapid restoration, jobs would be created, money from harvest of dead trees would pay for planting new ones. Watersheds, habitat and new conifer trees would provide environmental, economic, social and recreational opportunities for our children."

The focus of their outrage was the 1996 Spring fire, which burned 16,000 acres on the Umpqua National Forest.

On a recent tour, Diamond Lake district ranger John Ouimet explained that two-thirds of the fire was in designated wilderness that by law could not be logged or planted. The rest was in old-growth forest reserves, where logging is limited, and roadless areas, where access is expensive and difficult. None was in areas designated for timber production.

Under terms of the Northwest Forest Plan, adopted in 1994 to protect habitat for the northern spotted owl and other species, so much dead wood had to be left behind there wasn't enough for a timber sale, Ouimet said. Young forest plantations that burned were replanted, but areas with big trees were not due to concerns they could fall on tree planters.

The Forest Service has no comprehensive count of how much of the Spring fire has sprouted new trees on its own, but based on limited Forest Service counts in the most severely burned areas, environmentalists estimate it could be as much as 75 percent — a number Umpqua Supervisor Jim Caplan said was inaccurate.

Even choked with brush, the burn is far from a wasteland. Just a few hundred yards from the tour site, Dick Bickford, a fit 73-year-old from Richland in Eastern Oregon who still packs out his kills on his back, was camped with his two airedales.

Though he laments the waste of not harvesting the dead trees for lumber, he comes to the Spring fire area years after year to hunt precisely because there is so much brush, the staple diet of deer.

"This is tremendous hunting," he said. "I've killed three bucks in this country that go over 200 pounds."

The tangle of dead trees still lying on the ground on federal land after the Mount St. Helens eruption — cited in a Communities for Healthy Forests video — is much richer in numbers of plant and animal species than the green trees replanted for timber on private land next door, said Franklin.

The Society of American Foresters also supports the idea of reforesting the backlog of some 900,000 acres on national forests, arguing that replanting speeds the growth of timber as well as wildlife habitat, and salvage logging can be done with minimal environmental damage.

Mike Newton, a professor emeritus of forest ecology at Oregon State University, has monitored research plots in southwestern Oregon for 23 years and found that when young trees are planted and the brush kept in check, the trees grow up to four times faster. If brush takes over, trees cannot get started at all.

"It's a slam dunk," he said. "It also has become very clear that when we do this, biodiversity, if anything, is increased rather than being decreased. Because there is always some variability in the level of success."

But James R. Karr, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington who took part in the Beschta report, says even the best salvage logging is inferior to the natural process.

"This is a very complicated thing," he said. "When you ask a simple question and you get a simple answer, that often overlooks many of the longer term and short-term ecological consequences."