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After wildfires, to log or not to log?

A report rejects US policy of logging after fires in national forests, arguing a hands-off approach yields better results.

The 2005 wildfire season was declared officially over here the other day. Rain and snow in the mountains have dampened the timber, and the sound of firefighting helicopters and trucks has been replaced by the rifle fire of deer and elk hunters.

But the rhetorical heat and smoke of battle continues over how to manage forestland to prevent catastrophic fire - and perhaps more pointedly, what to do with those lands once they've burned.

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The timber industry and the Bush administration say postfire salvage logging is best for forest restoration. It's not unusual in the mountain West these days to see trucks stacked with charred logs headed toward saw mills.

"Common sense and a century of practical examples of successful salvage and reforestation show that the science of forestry works," says Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group in Portland, Ore. "Private, state, and tribal forest managers know that it works and restores ecosystems for future generations."

A recent report by scientists, fire experts, and forest-protection advocates, though, attacks the rationale for postfire logging - in essence arguing, based on historical data, that forests regenerate better when left alone rather than being logged and replanted.

"Logging after fires degrades soils, produces sediment, endangering aquatic species and water quality, increases fire risks, and destroys terrestrial wildlife habitat," states a report by the American Lands Alliance, a grass-roots group with an office in Washington, D.C. Instead, this group says, "fire should be thought of as a restorative agent for forests." This includes cycling nutrients back into the soil via mineral-rich ash, which helps seed germination, regeneration of fire-associated plants, and the creation of habitat for wildlife.

That may take decades, but it seems to work. In 1988, fires in Yellowstone National Park affected 793,000 acres (36 percent of the park). Rather than log the trees killed or damaged by fire, the park service managed the area for natural regeneration. Grasslands returned within a few years, trees (pine, fir, and spruce) are recolonizing, and animal and fish populations remain healthy.

Meanwhile, another advocacy group asserts that the US Forest Service has allowed logging and other commercial activities to the point that a dozen national forests around the country should be declared "endangered." These range from the Malheur and Siskiyou National Forests in Oregon to the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania.

"Much of the logging is still directed at the most sensitive forested habitats remaining in the US, including roadless areas, ancient old-growth forests, and critical fish and wildlife habitat," says Jake Kreilick of the 135-member National Forest Protection Alliance in Missoula, Mont.

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Since 2002, the group reports, the volume of the federal logging program has grown by more than 300 million board feet, mainly due to logging in Oregon, California, and the South.

The timber industry takes a different view. "What these lands are actually at risk of is catastrophic wildfires due to lack of modern forest management," says Mr. West. "In the last five years, most of the devastating fires have been in wilderness and roadless areas where no restoration will occur."

As it has been since it was created a century ago by President Theodore Roosevelt, the US Forest Service is caught in the middle - particularly in recent decades when its mandate shifted to managing 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands for "multiple use," including habitat protection, recreation, and water and air quality, as well as commercial logging.

In some areas, Forest Service managers start controlled fires to mimic nature.

"Our goal is to restore the dynamic ecological processes that our forested landscapes evolved with, including disturbances such as fire," US Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said at a recent public lands conference in Wyoming.

Still, as Mr. Bosworth acknowledges, the issue is complex - particularly in what's called the "wildland-urban interface" near populated areas.

Then, too, he emphasizes, the public - not just loggers and mill workers, foresters and biologists - has a big role to play in the future of national forests.

"Americans want it all - recreation opportunities, access, clean water, wildlife, and scenery, plus inexpensive two-by-fours and printer paper," the Forest Service chief told the Wyoming audience.

"Last year, Americans consumed wood products at record levels, and we remain the largest wood-consuming nation on Earth," he said. "Yet we don't want any changes in the landscape or any commercial operations on public land. If we truly believe in a land ethic, then we as a nation must also demonstrate a sound consumption ethic."