Some fear clearcuts could increase fire danger

By Colleen Valles The Associated Press
Sunday October 28, 2001

ANDERSON — The state’s largest timber company is shifting its logging practices from selective thinning of forestland to clearcutting, in order to help small trees grow big, it says. 

Sierra Pacific Industries says the shift also will cut down on fire danger, with new techniques making clearcutting more efficient and safer. But environmentalists and some neighbors charge that clearcuts are not good fire management tools. 

One thing is clear. With California’s fire season drawing to a close after more than 293,700 acres of wildland was burned, the issue of whether clearcutting is an effective fire management tool is heating up. 

“We try to design these along major ridge lines or roads so we can control fire better,” said Mike Mitzel, a district manager for Sierra Pacific Industries. 

Environmentalists say clearcuts eventually could lead to greater fire danger if the replacement trees are allowed to grow back too densely. 

“If you take everything away, a fire’s not going to burn effectively,” said Sierra Club organizer Warren Alford. “But in eight to 10 years, in a dense forest, that’s an increasingly dangerous fire opportunity.” 

The company plans to use a technique called “visual retention” on 70 percent of its 1.5 million acres, about 3.7 percent of forestland in California. Visual retention is a harvesting technique that leaves four to eight trees per acre in what otherwise would be a clearcut. 

Once the company completes the visual retention or clearcuts, it will go back to selective harvests, said Mark Lathrop, community relations manager for Sierra Pacific. That could take decades. 

On average, timber companies clearcut about 8,350 acres of the state’s 279,000 acres that are harvested in a typical year, according to the California Forestry Association. 

All agree that the Sierra forests where trees grow so thick that their trunks are inches apart and their branches are indistinguishable are not as healthy as those where the trees grow as much as six feet apart and the sunlight filters down to the forest floor. 

Fire is a natural, important part of a healthy Sierra Nevada forest — it leaves old, dead trees, called “snags,” for birds and other animals to nest in; it clears away small trees and leaves the large ones to provide habitat; it keeps the trees from crowding each other; it helps return nutrients to the soil. 

But the fires that consume unhealthy dense forests can burn so hot they burn up all the nutrients in the soil and make the ground as hard as concrete. Even water can’t penetrate it, and the water and ash run off into streams. 

Logging almost always increases fire danger, said Steve Pyne, professor and fire historian at Arizona State University. 

“All of the large fires in American history have followed logging or land clearing,” he said. “Because you’ve created a huge amount of fuel. A lot of material may be used, but a huge amount is left — branches, needles, small stuff or slash, that’s particularly vulnerable to fire.” 

And the trees planted to replenish the clearcuts are susceptible to fire because they are young and small. Older, bigger trees are more resistant to fire. 

But harvesting trees can be beneficial if they are properly maintained. 

“Where logging works as a fire protection measure is really kind of gardening,” Pyne said, “where you convert it to a garden and you intensively weed it and manage it and cultivate it.” 

That practice, however, can cost the forest biodiversity and ecosystem health, and it’s expensive and labor-intensive, Pyne said. 

The threat of intense, catastrophic fires has increased because the more frequent, cooler fires typical of the Sierra Nevada have been suppressed, and the forests don’t receive the fires’ restorative benefits. 

That’s where clearcutting comes in, according to Sierra Pacific Industries. 

“If you want to keep a system, you need disturbance,” said Cajun James, principal research scientist for the company. 

Sierra Pacific maintains the clearcuts or visual retention will provide the disturbance needed to let new trees grow to restore the health of the forest, and help prevent intense fires. 

“Nothing can stop a fire in these dense stands,” James said. “We’ve suppressed fires long enough that when they get that intense, they can’t fight them.” 

The Sierra Club’s Alford counters that clearcutting does not mimic a healthy fire in the Sierra Nevada. He said too much is taken out for a healthy forest to grow back in its place, and the herbicides that are put on clearcuts — to keep down the vegetation that might interfere with replanted trees — can be harmful to people. 

Clearcutting is controversial throughout the state. Even the U.S. Forest Service has significantly cut back on its clearcutting, cutting only a few acres at most and doing it rarely, said spokesman Matt Mathes. The Forest Service used to clearcut and sell the timber. It stopped the practice in 1992. 

“Society has made it fairly clear to us that they want to see less emphasis on timber harvesting,” Mathes said. “The laws of the land to protect wildlife and water quality have been factors in our move away from clearcutting.” 

Instead, the Forest Service thins the forests, taking out brush and small diameter trees, then finishes up with a “prescribed” burn, which means it sets controlled fires in the spring and fall to clear the rest of the fuel that could feed a catastrophic fire. 

The Forest Service owns 20 million acres — or one-fifth of the land in California. About 4.5 million acres of that is designated as wilderness and has no timber cutting done on it. Another 600,000 acres in river corridors are not cut either. 

According to the California Forestry Association, state loggers do a relatively low amount of clearcutting. There are 40 million acres of forest land in the state and 16.7 million of that is harvestable, the association says. 

Lumber from California in general brought in more than $1.6 billion in 1999, the latest year for which numbers were available, said Butch Bernhardt, director of information services for the Western Wood Products Association in Oregon. 

Fighting wildfires is costly for the state, consuming 90 percent of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s $450 million budget. 

END Advance