Forest Health and Salvage Logging (Part 1 of 2)


This SSI information update assesses an intensely debated and much publicized policy issue affecting biodiversity and forest ecosystems in the United States -- forest health and salvage logging. In the past several weeks there has been extensive media coverage of the western forest fires, and several diametrically opposed pieces of federal legislation intended to address the situation are currently pending.

This update will discuss how forest health is defined and assessed, how it is presented from both environmental and industry viewpoints, and how national policymakers have recently proposed to deal with the issue. This update does not, however, attempt to provide a comprehensive proactive proposal for improving forest health, nor does it presume to define the ultimate "sound science" perspective on the issue.

Rather, this update is intended to help SSI members improve their understanding of this salient issue and to prepare SSI members for upcoming policy initiatives that are likely to prompt SSI action alerts. Over the next several months, we will track various legislative (and other policy) proposals and will provide sound science perspectives on these proposals, as appropriate. Because the Craig bill now before Congress -- described below in considerable detail -- seems likely to have strong deleterious impacts on forest ecosystems, this update focuses particularly on salvage logging. Other policy options that have the effect of decreasing forest health or maintaining forest ecologial integrity may inspire additional updates.

We encourage SSI members who work on this issue to keep us informed of scientific perspectives and/or policy developments, and to share their expertise and opinions with us.

Assessment, Perspectives, and Public Policy

A briefing update produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists

It is a hot year for fires in the United States: wildfires have scorched nearly 5.9 million acres, hitting the states of California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming particularly hard. In California, for example, 593,000 acres have burned to date; in Oregon, the total is 315,800 acres, among them one fire that expanded from 24,000 acres to 65,000 acres in a single day. One of the worst fire seasons in 30 years, more than 88,500 fires have burned so far this year, compared with a five-year annual average of 58,969 (updated as of September 12, 1996, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho).

No single factor is completely responsible for this burning season, but the widespread fires have thrust the forest health issue back into public awareness. In fact, although forest health problems are debated at the national level and laws are passed addressing the issue that apply across the country, the stimulus for action has traditionally come from a particular region: the "Eastside" or "Western inland" coniferous forests. While forest health problems do occur in other parts of the country -- particularly introduced pests such as the gypsy moth, chestnut blight, balsam woody adelgid, and Dutch elm disease -- forest health would not have become the subject of intense national debate without this year's sensational fires in the inland West.

To be sure, some policies enacted at the national level -- examples include "Smoky the Bear"-type fire suppression and the salvage logging rider -- have exacerbated the problems in the field and have highly polarized the debate among environmentalists and industry. The purpose of this update is to provide a more dispassionate examination of the forest health issue. It will discuss how forest health is defined and assessed from a biological perspective, how it is presented from both environmental and industry viewpoints, and how national policymakers have recently proposed to deal with the issue.

**Defining Forest Health

Forest health is a term used to denote the status of a forested ecosystem, and as many observers have noted, it is not easy to define. Most of those who have worked in the field will know that, whatever one's definition and objectives, it's a lot easier to identify unhealthy forests than healthy ones. The root of the problem is that the very factors that make a forest unhealthy -- dead trees, disease, fungus, insects, etc. -- are also present, even important, in a healthy ecosystem. Left to its own devices, a forest will achieve a dynamic equilibrium characterized by periods of decay, renewal, succession, and stagnation. Anthropogenic demands on a forest ecosystem can have profound influences on its health by disturbing, prolonging, or accelerating any given period. Thus, any definition must take into consideration ALL the factors that will contribute to or diminish forest health. Consider two recent definitions:

"Forest health is defined in this context as a condition of forest ecosystems that sustains their complexity while providing for human needs..." (Sampson et al. 1994)

"A desired state of forest health is a condition where biotic and abiotic influences do not threaten resource management objectives now or in the future." (USDA-Forest Service, 1993)

As both of these definitions show, assessing forest health is largely dependent on decisions about which "resource management objectives" should be pursued and which "human needs" should be provided for. If, as has been the case in the United States for much of the twentieth century, the primary objective is timber production, then forests with productivity well below their potential will be considered unhealthy. If, on the other hand, biodiversity conservation is the primary objective, the assessment may be quite different. While industry and environmentalists disagree on many aspects of the question, they do agree that there are substantial areas of unhealthy forests in the United States today -- particularly in the inland West.

** Assessing Forest Health

The forests in the intermountain West -- a region roughly encompassed by the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Cascades and the Sierra Nevadas, and from the Canadian border to Arizona and New Mexico -- are dominated by pines, particularly Ponderosa, Western white, and lodgepole pines. It has not always been thus. Since the arrival of settlers, the structure, species composition, and land area of forests has been substantially altered (Covington and Moore, 1994), and the changes have not been universally beneficial.

There is general agreement on the historical origins of the forest health problem in the inland West. Unlike the humid Pacific coast, this is an area of relatively dry climate with frequent drought years, and fires are a normal part of its ecological cycles. Before the beginning of large-scale logging during the second half of the nineteenth- and the early twentieth-century, many of the region's forests were open stands of ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), in which ground (surface) fires occurred every 5 to 15 years (DellaSala et al. 1995).

These ground fires burned the accumulated litter, eliminated more shade-tolerant tree species which would otherwise have established themselves under the ponderosa pines, and prevented the buildup of larger amounts of fuel which would have made the fires larger and more destructive. Thus the short-cycle surface fires tended both to maintain the dominance of ponderosa pine and to prevent fires from reaching up into the crowns of the trees and becoming much more damaging ("stand-replacing"). Surface fires were thus frequent, but stand-replacing forest fires were rare.

In the twentieth century, the combination of several decades of fire suppression and timber industry preferences for ponderosa pine, western white pine (Pinus monticola), and larches (Larix occidentalis, Larix lyallii) led to a buildup of fire-susceptible but shade-tolerant species in the understories of the open pine forests (Committee on Agriculture, 1992; Sampson 1994). These species, including Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), true firs (Abies concolor, Abies grandis), and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), have reached high densities in many areas. A study of northern Arizona forests found that the pre-settlement tree density averaged about 23 per acre compared to the present-day density of 851 trees per acre (Covington and Moore, 1994). Such abnormally large concentrations of biomass are far more susceptible to insects and diseases and are a source of fuel which can feed catastrophic fires.

The biomass buildup has also changed the physical structure of the forests, with more continuity of fuel and fewer and smaller breaks both horizontally and vertically. The result is large patches of pest- and fire-susceptible forests with "fuel ladders" from the ground to the crowns of trees, which make it much more likely that fires will become stand-replacing and spread over large areas (see Gorte, 1995). Pest and fire problems are related, and can be mutually reinforcing. Burned trees are often vulnerable to fungal diseases such as butt and stem rots. On the other hand outbreaks of pests can lead to the deaths of many trees. Once killed, these trees are even more susceptible to burning. This danger is particularly great in years of drought, which as mentioned is frequent in the region. Large-scale fires in the last decade -- particularly those in 1988, which burned major parts of Yellowstone National park, and in 1994, when 26 firefighters were killed -- have thus led to a widespread belief that past management has produced unhealthy forest ecosystems and that something must be done.

Up to this point, there is a general consensus among the timber industry, the Forest Service, and environmentalists. Most agree that fuels have built up to levels beyond the "historic range of variability," that the composition and structure of forests today is quite different from those pre-1850, and that past Forest Service and industry policies are to blame for this situation.

Subject: SSI Update: Forest Health and Salvage Logging (Part 2 of 2)


**The Forest Industry Response

The timber industry sees the forest health situation as a crisis which requires immediate emergency action. In the context of declining timber sales on public lands in the Pacific Northwest due to court injunctions and more recently the Clinton Administration's Forest Plan, it proposes massive intervention to reduce the abnormal tree densities and fuel buildup in the inland forests. In particular, it wants substantial areas of forest on federal land (National Forests and BLM lands) to be sold for timber harvesting, both before fires occur (to reduce wood biomass and thus lower fire dangers) and after pest outbreaks or stand-replacing fires (to remove as many dead or dying trees as possible). Harvests of live, healthy trees are called "green" timber sales, while the cutting of damaged or dead trees is called "salvage" cutting. Both have been justified by industry on the basis of the urgent need to reduce the dangerous accumulations of biomass which decades of fire suppression have caused.

The timber industry also generally supports other means of reducing forest biomass, such as constructing firebreaks, pre-commercial thinnings (cutting of trees too small to be used), and prescribed fire. However, it sees these techniques as inadequate to deal with the crisis unless accompanied by commercial timber harvesting. For example, industry argues that prescribed fires cannot be used in many areas because fuel levels are so high that these intentional burns could not be controlled; even though intended as surface fires, they would quickly spread into the canopy and become just as destructive as the "natural" fires they are intended to prevent.

Thus, in a reversal of the normal situation, it is industry which most strongly emphasizes the errors of past Forest Service policies and is most alarmed at the potential for a catastrophe. Although industry representatives acknowledge they will derive economic benefits from their proposed solution, supporters of logging claim that the basic reasons for large-scale green timber and salvage sales are ecological.

**The Environmentalist Response

The environmental community, while in agreement that past mismanagement has caused a serious problem, parts company from the timber industry's proposed "solution." Its critiques are twofold -- that the crisis is being exaggerated, and that commercial logging would do little to solve it.

Environmentalists point out that while stand-replacing fires were uncommon in pre-European times, they did occur, and would impact the forest landscape for many centuries. The result was a patchwork of forest types and ages, leading to a diverse set of ecosystems able to recover from perturbations. Pest outbreaks, in particular, are a normal cyclical feature of this region, and the major tree species are able to recover from them.

Dead and dying trees, environmentalists contend, are not in and of themselves a sign of ecosystem ill health, even if sometimes found in large numbers. They are critical to many ecosystem processes, including nutrient cycling, seed germination, maintenance of the populations of natural biological control agents and beneficial fungi, and reproduction of many species of animals (DellaSala et al. 1995). The mere presence of pest insects and diseases in a forest area, therefore, cannot be used as a measure of ill health; indeed their absence is what would be abnormal.

In relation to pest problems, in fact, there is relatively little evidence that we are in a crisis situation. Consider, for example, the summaries of the status of the major pests of Western forests, published by the Forest Service in its report on The Scientific Basis for Silvicultural and Management Decisions in the National Forest System (Mason et al. 1989). These summaries, done before the recent polarizing debate on forest health, found that only two of the eight major types of pest problem in Western inland conifers were increasing, while six were decreasing. For Pacific coast conifers, only one of five was increasing while four were decreasing. Thus the Forest Service's own summaries indicate that, from the point of view of pest problems, the overall trend is not a growing crisis, but rather a decline.

Even granting that fire dangers have reached abnormal levels, it is doubtful whether commercial timber harvesting provides an ecologically sound solution. Commercial timber sales, whether green or salvage, emphasize those trees which are large enough to use, while the basic problem is the abnormal density of small trees. Timber companies continue to prefer ponderosa and western white pine, which have already been overexploited, to the low-value true firs which are overly abundant. Furthermore, the very act of carrying out a commercial timber harvest involves road construction, soil compaction, sedimentation of streams, and the arrival of equipment and personnel which are sources of new fires. Logging can thus be even more damaging than the stand-replacing fires it is supposed to prevent.

Non-commercial alternatives such as prescribed fire, pre-commercial thinnings and firebreaks, as well as protection of large areas in reserves, are environmentalists' preferred solution (DellaSala et al. 1995; Committee on Agriculture, 1992). They agree that actions should be taken to improve forest health, but these should be driven by ecological considerations and accurate scientific data rather than by the desire to justify more timber sales. They warn that "emergency" actions based on the need to respond quickly to a supposed forest health crisis can ignore both scientific knowledge and the established legal framework for management of our national forests.

**The Policy Response

This warning has proven to be justified by the results of the timber salvage rider, passed by the 104th Congress in July, 1995. While forest health bills had been introduced with bipartisan support in previous Congresses (e.g. Rep. Larry LaRocco's (D-ID) HR 4980 in the 102nd Congress and HR 229 in the 103rd Congress), they had never gotten to the floor, let alone been passed. But in 1995, the newly Republican-controlled 104th Congress attached an amendment to the Rescissions Bill to open up many public lands to salvage logging. This "Timber Salvage Rider" required the Forest Service to produce between 3.375 billion to 5.625 billion board feet by Dec. 31 and allowed timber companies to log areas that had been or might be affected by insects, disease or forest fires. To expedite logging in these areas, Congress wrote the legislation so that all environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act would not apply, and restricted the right of citizens to sue to stop salvage sales.

President Clinton signed the Rescissions Bill, including the rider, on July 27, 1995. Once it was passed, the timber industry sued the Forest Service in federal court, arguing that the rider forced the reactivation of old timber sale proposals that had been held up because they did not conform to environmental laws. This interpretation was upheld in court, and forced the Forest Service to prepare additional areas for logging. These areas included some green timber and in many instances even stands which the Administration's Forest Plan had placed off limits. It also forced the Forest Service to sell timber in National Forests all over the country, even though its justification had been the forest health crisis in the inland West.

The Administration, which had gone along with the rider saying that it would only cover a small area of already-dead timber, initially asserted that the timber industry's interpretation was unlikely to prevail in court. Having lost the case, however, the President has realized and acknowledged the mistake of signing the rescissions bill with the rider attached.

**Current Forest Health Legislation

Two major pieces of legislation relating to forest health have been considered by Congress in the last year. On the environmentalist side, Rep. Elizabeth Furse (D-OR) introduced the "Restoration of Natural Resources Laws on the Public Lands Act of 1995, " H.R. 2745, a bill to repeal the Timber Salvage Rider. This bill would have stopped all logging operations begun under the timber rider; subjected all National Forest logging to environmental laws again; restored to citizens the right to go to court to object to environmentally disastrous logging; and re-established the Forest Plan as the basis for logging in national forests in the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, the amendment was defeated by a 209-211 in a House vote on June 20. (Another effort, a similar bill pushed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) in the Senate, was earlier defeated by a 54-42 vote in March.)

On the industry side, Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), who chairs the Forests and Public Lands subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced S.391, the Federal Lands Forest Health Protection and Restoration Act, last February. This bill would make provisions of the timber salvage rider a permanent part of the law. The bill would permanently curtail environmental review, endangered species assessments and citizen participation in timber sales designed to restore forest health. Sen. Craig's subcommittee held hearings on his bill this past April, and the Committee passed the Forest Health bill with a voice vote on June 19. On the same day, a letter signed by 111 scientists was delivered to President Clinton (and members of Sen. Craig's Committee) urging him to reject the bill as "legislation that benefits the logging industry rather than protecting the ecological integrity of forest landscapes." The bill was referred to the Committees on Agriculture; Environment and Public Works on July 16.

Although the Republicans continue to have a majority in both houses, the environmental community and many scientists have strongly and vocally opposed Sen. Craig's bill. With the environment being a priority issue of concern with voters, it is unlikely that the Craig bill will be passed before November. However the forest health debate may well be an important feature of this year's election campaign and is likely to continue in the next Congress.

** This briefing update on forest health was prepared as a special project of UCS's Global Resources Department. Staff scientist Darren Goetze and UCS consultant Dr. Doug Boucher were major contributors.


Committee on Agriculture, US House of Representatives (1992) Forest Health and Clearcutting (Hearings before the Subcommittee on Forests, Family Farms and Energy). Serial No. 102-97, US Congress, Washington, DC.

Covington WW and MM Moore (1994) Postsettlement Changes in Natural Fire Regimes and Forest Structure: Ecological Restoration of Old-Growth Ponderosa Pine Forests. In: Assessing Forest Ecosystem Health in the Inland West (RN Sampson and DL Adams, eds). Food Products Press, New York, NY.

DellaSalla, Dominick A., David M. Olson and Saundra L. Crane (1995) Ecosystem management and biodiversity conservation: applications to inland Pacific Northwest forests. In: Proceedings of a Workshop on Ecosystem Management in Western Interior Forests (D Baumgartner and R Everett, eds.). Washington State University Cooperative Extension Unit, Pullman, WA.

Gorte RW (1995) Forest Fires and Forest Health. Congressional Research Service RepoEErt No. 95-511 ENR. Washington, DC.

Mason, Garland N., Kurt W. Gottschalk and James S. Hadfield (1989) Effects of timber management practices on insects and diseases. In: The Scientific Basis for Silvicultural and Management Decisions in the National Forest System (RM Burns, tech. compiler). USDA-Forest Service General Technical Report WO-55, Washington, DC.

Sampson, R. Neil, David L. Adams, Stanley Hamilton, Stephen P. Mealey, Robert Steele and Dave Van De Graaff (1994) Assessing Forest Ecosystem Health in the Inland West. Forest Policy Center, American Forests, Washington, DC.

USDA-Forest Service (1993) Healthy Forests for America's Future. U.S. Forest Service Publication MP-1513, Washington D.C.

September 1996

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