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New rumbling over salvage logging

Debate revives over managing burned forests, as a report on '02 'Biscuit' fire casts doubt on benefits of salvage work.

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After wildfire sweeps through timber, as it does every summer across the American West, the inclination of foresters is to salvage the scorched trees. Turning them into paper and lumber, the reasoning goes, is better than letting them decay. It removes dead wood that could fuel future fires, and it clears the area for seedlings.

New evidence, though, suggests that salvage logging increases the risk of future conflagrations and interferes with forest regeneration by killing most of the seedlings that reemerge on their own.

Researchers at Oregon State University recently examined the aftermath of a massive fire that encompassed nearly 500,000 acres of southern Oregon in 2002, the so-called Biscuit fire. They reported last week that salvage logging there destroyed about 70 percent of seedlings that had sprouted from the forest floor and increased the risk of future fires.

"Not everything leaves on the log truck," said John Campbell, researcher in the university's department of forest science. "We found that the process of logging in this type of situation actually produces a large amount of fine fuels on the ground that, unless removed, could increase fire risk, not decrease it."

Forest policy is a big deal in the West, which is mostly national forest and other public land. Ongoing fires in southern Colorado forcing hundreds of people to evacuate would seem to boost the argument for quick logging in fire-damaged areas. But this new report on negative impacts of salvage logging could hamper the forest product industry's efforts to persuade policymakers to move more aggressively in that direction.

An offset to global warming?

The forestry debate also focuses attention on climate change as a long-term factor in federal forest management - a relatively new development in the long-running dispute over whether to conserve old-growth forests or to treat them as a natural resource to be harvested.

Industry spokesmen say the prospect of global warming argues for salvage logging and replanting before it becomes harder to kick-start new forests that could act as "carbon sinks," trapping the carbon dioxide that constitutes the most troublesome greenhouse gas causing global warming.


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