EDITORIAL: The Rim fire recovery

FresnoJanuary 11, 2014 

The Rim fire burned 257,000 acres, or 402 square miles. The U.S. Forest Service has an extremely difficult task reaching consensus among competing interests on how to proceed with salvage logging in a way that avoids litigation. Politics should not be part of the equation.

MODESTO BEE FILE PHOTO

Gateway communities to Yosemite National Park suffered a triple-whammy in 2013 — the Rim fire, the 16-day government shutdown and another winter with little snow.

How this national treasure recovers from the fire that swept through the Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park and private timberland from Aug. 17 until the end of September matters a lot, not just for the Sierra but for other wildland that might be hit by fire.

The U.S. Forest Service has done a good job of bringing people together and working collaboratively. Existing laws that require public comment and review have garnered useful information and will make the recovery better. Thousands of people have weighed in. Still, the Forest Service has an extremely difficult task reaching consensus among competing interests in a way that avoids litigation.

Unfortunately, Rep. Tom McClintock, the Elk Grove Republican who represents Yosemite and the area scorched by the fire, seems determined to drive a political wedge, rather than forge agreement. He has called for immediate salvage logging that would be exempt from federal environmental laws, public comment and court review on the entire 257,000-acre burn area, including in Yosemite National Park.

His bill was amended to take out the national park only over his "gravest reservations." Many in the logging industry support McClintock's effort, seeing it as an opportunity to set a national precedent for exempting logging on public lands from environmental laws and court review, without having to go through the usual vetting and compromise. McClintock ought to drop his ill-conceived idea.

The Forest Service has the tools it needs to balance science and other interests in timely fashion. Hundreds of millions of board feet of wood will be available for loggers next summer. There is no need to avoid environmental laws.

The issues are complex. How many dead trees should be removed? Should tree seedlings be planted? What areas should be left to regenerate on their own?

Despite McClintock, agreement already has emerged on important issues:

The 79,000 acres that burned in Yosemite National Park should be left to recover naturally, removing only trees that are a hazard to public safety.

Salvage logging on 16,000 acres of private land owned by Sierra Pacific Industries will keep mills busy until summer 2015. Sierra Pacific expects to remove 150 million to 180 million board feet from its timberland that burned in the fire. Two Tuolumne County mills owned by the company near Sonora and Jamestown can process about 125 million board feet a year. They are operating near capacity, employing 280 people. Some Sierra Pacific logs also are being hauled 125 to 145 miles to the Lincoln Mill near Roseville. All three mills are running two shifts. Another mill at Terra Bella also can take logs, but it is 200 miles from the Rim fire site.

On the 154,000 acres of national forest lands that burned, the Forest Service can move quickly to remove dead standing trees on 7,600 acres that pose a hazard of falling on high-use roads and killing somebody. Environmental analysis is proceeding as it should, and those trees should be ready for removal by the end of spring. That provides another 100 million board feet of timber for local mills.

The remaining battle is over what other areas of dead standing trees, if any, should be removed in the next two years.

By focusing narrowly, environmental studies could be completed by August without litigation that causes delays. To that end, logging should be limited to areas that are most easily accessible, economically feasible and least controversial — about 22,000 acres or fewer. That would produce 250 million to 300 million board feet.

There is a glut of dead standing trees on areas of relatively flat ground, where crews can economically cut and load within a quarter-mile of existing roads. The Forest Service should reject proposals to build new roads to access dead trees. It also should reject cable logging on steep slopes, where dragging and gouging causes erosion problems, and costly helicopter logging in the most inaccessible areas. It should recognize the value of leaving significant areas of standing dead trees for wildlife habitat.

The Rim fire has left enough standing dead trees for everybody — scientists interested in protecting high-intensity burn habitat, timber interests seeking logs, as well as birders and other environmentalists who love to explore burned-out areas. The scale of the Rim fire leaves room for compromise.

McClintock should recognize that, seize the opportunity to help the district he represents, and show he can govern, instead of adding more pain to a region that has had enough.

 

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