Burning questions

Should loggers be allowed into a pristine forest? Can blackened trees revive? Do dying trees create a public safety risk? Or is it just about money?

Duncan Canyon after last year’s Star Fire.

Duncan Canyon after last year’s Star Fire.

Photo by Eric Beckwitt

When is dead really dead?

Determining the criteria for death is fairly obvious for most species, but in the case of coniferous trees, it’s a topic for debate among environmentalists, loggers and the U.S. Forest Service.

None of the parties disagree that last summer’s Star Fire, which burned more than 16,000 acres near the North and Middle Forks of the American River in Placer County, had a disastrous impact.

However, environmentalists think Forest Service personnel are too eager to declare dead what may be revivable forest in Duncan Canyon in order to proceed with a massive timber sale of up to 140 million board feet, enough to build 14,000 homes.

Forest Service officials counter that the dead, or soon-to-be dead, trees present a large-scale fire hazard and that timber harvesting can aid in the restoration effort, even if it means subverting new agency policies to build new roads.

Brian Vincent of the American Lands Alliance is unconvinced: “Duncan Canyon is one of the last remaining examples in the Sierra Nevada of untouched, old-growth mixed conifer forest.”

Dead or alive, the canyon’s ponderosa pine, white fir, sugar pine, California red fir and incense cedar offer, according to Vincent, “some of the best habitat for imperiled species such as the California spotted owl, northern goshawk, Sierra Nevada red fox, Pacific fisher and American marten.”

Snags, or large standing dead trees, provide homes for nesting species; when they fall to the ground, they become dens for small mammals. What environmentalists see as habitat, the Forest Service sees as a hazard. Agency officials say they don’t want dying trees falling down or creating tons of fuel for future fires.

Weaving through an area of standing dead trees, the Tevis Cup Trail, an equestrian trail, and the Western States Trail, a 100-mile footrace, stretch from Squaw Valley to Auburn.

“It’s a big concern,” said Ann Westling, public affairs officer for the Tahoe National Forest. “These trees could remain standing another 30 years,” with potential to fall on runners and riders, although both trails will be temporarily re-routed this summer.

At the crux of the mortality issue is deciding if trees will regenerate. And if not, should they be cut for fire safety and loggers’ profits, or left alone to decompose and add nutrients to the forest floor. It’s a conflict between the human world and natural world, between those who want to manage the forest and those who think it manages itself just fine. Just the latest chapter in a long-running debate.

Immediately after the fire, Ed Pandolfino of the Sierra Foothills Audubon Society viewed the site and noted “substantial areas with live trees on north slopes,” but acknowledged by this summer it will be more apparent which trees will survive.

“This area is supposed to be managed by the Forest Service as old growth,” he said. “These big trees take a long time to grow.”

Currently the Forest Service tallies 3,700 acres of dead trees with possibly 4,000 acres of trees that will die within the next three years.

Karen Jones, the silviculturist in charge of the Forest Service’s restoration team, states the “criteria for a dead tree is black or brown, no green on the tree.” Yet environmentalists such as Vincent claim the agency’s own scientists “say mature conifers will survive 85-90 percent crown scorch.” Chad Hanson, executive director of the John Muir Project, has seen “mature ponderosa pines … with 100 percent crown scorch in 2001 sprout new buds in early 2002.”

It is the inner cambium layer under the bark that “distributes water up to the needles and sugar to the roots,” said Westling, that determines the tree’s survival. “If the cambium layer gets too hot and it gets scorched, it will prevent the flow” of nutrients and the tree will die within a couple of years. But determining the extent of damage to the cambium layer by excising a portion of it with an ax can be fatal to a tree that otherwise might survive.

According to Westling, data were diligently gathered to determine that a “hefty percentage [of the forest] burned extensively, with more that 75 percent of the trees dead. We will only be removing fire-killed trees, not ones that may or may not die.”

Yet the question of whether these trees would survive is only part of the equation. Environmentalists say economics—not fire suppression or public safety—is what’s really driving this project, which would open up virgin forests to loggers.

Fire has always been a given in the forest, but in the last 100 years, fire-suppression efforts and logging have increased the amount of underbrush, making contemporary fires hotter and more damaging.

While the Forest Service says it wants to remove dead trees to decrease fire danger, environmentalists claim “there is no scientific evidence that leaving large snags and logs will increase fire severity. Those large logs retain enormous amounts of water” and decrease fire risk, Hanson said.

The other thing retained in those large logs is financial value. A single large old-growth tree can be worth as much as $3,000 to $5,000, although a dying tree steadily loses value over time. That, say environmentalists, is why the Forest Service is being pressured to approve this project before it’s known whether the trees will survive.

“The Forest Service has admitted there will be an increase in fire severity in the next 10 to 20 years due to slash debris from logging operations,” Hanson said, noting that these combustible slash piles can be several feet deep. Moreover, reducing canopy cover from tree cutting will “create hotter, drier conditions … increasing the growth rate of highly flammable weeds and shrubs,” in addition to causing erosion and sedimentation.

Instead of timber sales, Hanson and other environmentalists would like to see prescribed burning as the preferred fire mitigation strategy. Congress last year appropriated $120 million to reduce fuels in order to protect homes and other structures.

But Vincent said the Forest Service is using the money to support timber sales in the “nation’s most pristine forestlands … areas far from homes and businesses.”

Vincent views the Duncan Canyon harvest as yet another attempt to dismantle the popular Roadless Rule, which prohibits logging, road building and development on 58.5 million acres of roadless areas in national forest lands.

Passed in the waning days of the Clinton administration and supported by 95 percent of the 2.3 million public comments received, it permitted cutting of small diameter trees only to improve species habitat or to restore the ecosystem.

“The Bush administration has taken a wrecking ball to the Roadless Area Policy,” said Vincent, “and the Forest Service has wasted no time in readying its demolition crew to level the last of our nation’s most wild, untouched forests.”

“This remote area … does not pose a fire threat to any community,” Pandolfino said of Duncan Canyon. The only nearby building is a “small uninhabited service structure at the French Meadows Dam.”

As summer begins, the draft environmental impact report will be issued for the Duncan Canyon salvage operation. By the time fire season reaches its peak at the end of summer, the final report will be released.

In the meantime, some trees will grow back and some trees will die.