Infrastructure & Environment

Controversy over How to Recover from California's Rim Fire

Calls for massive salvage logging, restoration and reforestation projects in the 257,000 acres of public wilderness scarred by the Rim fire have ignited controversy over how to proceed with the largest recovery effort undertaken in the Sierra Nevada.
October 7, 2013
 

Calls for massive salvage logging, restoration and reforestation projects in the 257,000 acres of public wilderness scarred by the Rim fire have ignited controversy over how to proceed with the largest recovery effort undertaken in the Sierra Nevada.

"We're hoping to negotiate our way through this, but we need the infrastructure and personnel," said Jerry Snyder, a spokesman for the Stanislaus National Forest. "This effort will be huge, so we'll also need additional help from Washington."

But time is running out. The fire left behind about 1 billion board feet of salvageable timber, much of which could be rendered worthless by fungus and wood-boring beetles within a matter of months. At least 200 miles of roads are endangered by collapsing trees and fallen power poles. Existing culverts are no match for mudslides expected to choke Sierra streams after winter rains hit the fire-stripped slopes.

Then there is the federal government shutdown, which could hamper firefighters' efforts to mop up hot spots smoldering since the fire — touched off in August by a hunter's illegal campfire — burned across the Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park and private holdings.

Although no one disagrees with the need for safety in an area so badly damaged by fire that much of it will remain closed for a year or more, there are disagreements about everything else.

On one side are those — mostly federal land managers and timber industry advocates — who want to get large-scale salvage logging approved before snow starts to fall. Reforestation projects later in the year, they say, would also boost economic activity in a region with only 30% of the mills it had a decade ago.

"No doubt there's more timber out there than can be absorbed by the mills," said Mike Albrecht, president of the Calaveras County forest products firm Sierra Resource Management. "But I want to see that become the problem, not that we can't get the wood to the rails."

A week ago, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove) introduced a controversial measure that would expedite salvage logging in the national forest and Yosemite by suspending environmental reviews and forestalling litigation by environmentalists, which, he said in an interview, "run the clock out on recovery of fire-killed timber."

But critics argue that such proposals — coupled with global warming, inadequate federal funding to manage replanted forests and unnaturally dense vegetation resulting from strict fire suppression policies — would only set the stage for more catastrophic blazes.

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