When logging company owner Dick Tanner thinks about the bureaucratic challenges involved with harvesting fire-scorched timber from public lands, he shakes his head in disbelief.
“It’s amazing how private companies can start harvesting timber immediately, but with the Forest Service, they can barely get any timber out before it loses all its value,” Tanner said. “All the environmental pressure has pushed the Forest Service out of the logging industry.”
Tanner, whose Murphys-based company has logged the hills of Northern California for more than 25 years, laments the fact that the Forest Service doesn’t utilize its burned timber more effectively.
“The Forest Service has gone out of the timber business in the last 10 to 15 years,” Tanner continued. “Instead of being a revenue generator, the Forest Service has turned into a huge spender. Selling its burned timber is one way the Forest Service could raise a large amount of funds to spend on infrastructure.”
Legislation concerning the removal of timber scorched by the Rim Fire in August and September is blazing its way through Congress. But while public officials weigh the merits of the bill, area residents are engaged in a fiery debate over the best way to deal with the burned wood.
The legislation, which was introduced by California’s 4th District Congressional Rep. Tom McClintock, seeks to streamline the process for removing and selling fire-seared timber in Stanislaus National Forest. McClintock said his bill, known as H.R. 3188, is necessary to avoid protracted legal battles over harvesting the timber.
“Within a year, the value of the timber begins to decline rapidly as the wood is devoured by insects and rot,” said McClintock in a speech before the U.S. House of Representatives Nov. 13.
“That’s the problem: cumbersome environmental re-views and the litigation that inevitably follows will run out the clock on this valuable asset until it becomes worthless.”
In his remarks before the House, McClintock went on to say that insect infestation and disease would not only destroy the burned timber, they would also jeopardize nearby forests that were not impacted by the Rim Fire.
Under the provisions of H.R. 3188, federal forest managers would be authorized to oversee the removal and sale of fire-damaged timber, while adhering to stringent environmental salvage protocols. McClintock said that, in addition to generating a financial windfall for the region, wood sale proceeds from his bill would also ensure that area forests are more ecologically sound in the future.
“The hundreds of millions of dollars raised can then be directed toward replanting the region before layers of brush choke off any chance of forest regrowth in the foreseeable future,” McClintock said in his remarks before the House chamber.
Despite the fact that H.R. 3188 passed the House Natural Resources Committee on a 19-14 vote earlier this month (with the proviso that salvaging operations would not take place in Yosemite National Park), not everyone agrees that streamlining environmental regulations is a good idea.
“This bill is very polarizing at a time when people should be seeking to find common ground,” said John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center. “There is no need for legislation which exempts salvage logging and directs the Forest Service to do logging.”
While Buckley believes that a common ground solution for salvaging fire-damaged timber must be reached, he also believes that bypassing existing environmental laws will set a bad precedent and foster discord between conservationists and the logging community. Furthermore, Buckley contends that the sale of fire-scorched timber will not yield hundreds of millions of dollars as McClintock claimed in his remarks before the House.
“Almost all logging sales lose money for taxpayers,” Buckley said. “Any amount of money that comes in won’t even be in the tens of millions of dollars. Dead trees have a very low value.”
Despite this assessment, others disagree with Buckley’s position.
“Even if the Forest Service cut a portion of its burned timber, it would generate a huge amount of money,” said Tanner.
Sales of fire-salvage timber in the private sector seem to bolster Tanner’s position.
“We’ve shifted our harvesting from green timber to burn timber,” said Mark Pawlicki, spokesman for Sierra Pacific Industries, a forest products company which owns large swaths of land throughout the state. “Burned timber is valuable, but we only have about a year to harvest it before it loses its value.”
“Our company is the largest private landowner in California,” Pawlicki continued. “We lost 9,000 acres where all the timber was destroyed and 6,000 acres where the timber was severely damaged.”
Pawlicki added that scorched pine trees are at an increased risk for biological degradation.
“Blue stain (fungus) spreads through pine species very rapidly,” Pawlicki said. “Once the blue stain sets in, the tree decays to the point where it has very little value.”
Buckley also said that it’s impractical to harvest additional fire-damaged trees from public lands because there isn’t enough mill space to accommodate the burned lumber.
“Following current environmental laws, the Forest Service will be providing another year’s worth of wood that would fill the local mills,” Buckley said, adding that it doesn’t make economic sense to transport burned lumber to distant mills.
However, SPI is doing just that.
“We can accommodate whatever the Forest Service needs to sell,” said Pawlicki, adding that it has been trucking fire-damaged timber to mills as far away as Lincoln and Terra Bella. “Once our wood reaches the mill, we deck the timber so that the rate of decay is slowed down dramatically.”
Pawlicki explained that decking is a process in which wood is drenched in water so that its natural decomposition is halted.
Despite the fact that fire-damaged timber has the potential to generate significant funds, analysts predict that H.R. 3188 only has a small chance of becoming law. In the meantime, Tanner remains perplexed by the complications involved with extracting, selling and using timber damaged by the Rim Fire.
“Someone always files a suit if they try to harvest timber, so the Forest Service is in a catch-22 situation,” Tanner said.
As H.R. 3188 winds its way through Congress, time appears to be of the essence with regard to the extraction of timber damaged by the Rim Fire.
“The longer they wait, the harder it’s going to be to sell the (fire-damaged) timber,” Pawlicki said.
Contact Gray George at firstname.lastname@example.org