[OPINION] The Disconnect Between Myth and Reality in the Rim Fire

[Read the opposing view to this opinion piece, “Forest Biomass Utilization Combatting Catastrophic Wildfires,” by Julia Levin, Bioenergy Association of California & Tad Mason, Registered Professional Forester]

– by Chad Hanson, Research Ecologist, John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute

Large fires in the western U.S. have become the stuff of myth in recent years, with the public dialogue surrounding such fires now taking on the character of fish tales. Everything gets bigger, more dramatic, and more extreme with each telling, often resulting in an ever-widening gap between fact and fiction. There is perhaps no fire for which this is more true than the 257,000-acre Rim fire of 2013 in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.

Demonized by the Forest Service and the timber industry’s allies in Congress as a “moonscape,” where the fire burned so intensely that it “sterilized” the soil, the impression was created in the popular imagination of a landscape overwhelmingly dominated by high-intensity fire effects in the Rim fire, where every tree was killed and little or nothing would grow in the future. One local logging industry advocate claimed, without any basis in evidence, that the Rim fire moved so fast that deer could not outrun it and birds could not fly fast enough to escape. All of these claims were repeatedly reported in the news coverage as if they were fact. In the context of this narrative, pro-logging members of Congress and the timber industry pushed for a massive post-fire logging program on National Forest lands, and the U.S. Forest Service complied.

But it is now more than three years after the Rim fire, and the smoke has long since cleared, so what is the truth?

Far from the hyperbolic characterizations, most of the Rim fire experienced low- and moderate-intensity fire, while between one-fifth and one-third had high-intensity fire, depending on the estimate. And, on the two fastest fire-spread days, the fire moved at only one-half of one mile per hour.

In the high-intensity fire patches, abundant natural forest regeneration is occurring, even deep in the interior of the largest patches—in some places mostly oak with widely scattered conifer seedlings and saplings and in other places mostly pine, cedar, and fir regeneration, ranging from dozens to thousands of new trees per acre.

Colorful jumbles of wildflowers punctuate the landscape, along with native flowering shrub patches, attracting an abundance of flying insects and, as a result, a corresponding abundance of flycatching birds. Woodpeckers, including the rare Black-backed woodpecker, which depends on large patches of “snag forest habitat” created by high-intensity fire, excavate nest cavities in snags (standing dead trees) and forage on the larvae of native wood-boring beetles found under the bark of these snags. Bluebirds, nuthatches, wrens, and many other cavity-nesting birds use former woodpecker cavities for their homes. Shrub-dwelling birds nest in the patches of ceanothus and other fire-following understory plants. Deer graze on the shrubs, and Black bears get fat on berries.

The Forest Service told the public that the Rim fire was too large and burned too hot in most places to support California spotted owl populations, but it was later revealed that—at one year post-fire—some of the highest spotted owl occupancy ever recorded was found in the Rim fire, before post-fire logging began. The owls are nesting and roosting in the low- and moderate-intensity fire areas, while they are foraging in the snag forest habitat created by intense fire patches because the shrub patches and downed logs in the snag forest provide excellent habitat for their small mammal prey.

Where post-fire logging has occurred, little or none of this remarkable post-fire rejuvenation can be seen. Though such logging is being deceptively promoted by the Forest Service as “restoration” and “recovery” actions, the only places in the Rim fire that do resemble “moonscapes” are the logged areas, as nearly all of the snags are removed, and regenerating trees are crushed and killed under the treads of heavy ground-based logging machinery.

Though the Forest Service has logged approximately one-third of the snag forest habitat created by the Rim fire, most of this rare and unique habitat still remains intact currently, as some environmental groups, including mine, filed suit to enforce federal environmental laws. The Forest Service delayed the onset of logging until after spotted owl and woodpecker nesting season was over in the first year after the fire—a tactic often used by the agency to persuade federal courts that an injunction is unnecessary. By the time the snow melted in year two post-fire, many of the snag forest patches were considered unmerchantable for lumber by logging companies, due to some decay of the wood.

More recently, in the summer of 2016, the Forest Service signed a subsequent decision to log most of the remaining snag forest habitat through biomass sales, proposing to essentially clearcut about 15,000 acres to burn for bioenergy, which would not only destroy some of the very best wildlife habitat currently in existence in the Sierra Nevada, but would also emit hundreds of thousands of metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere—clearcuts for kilowatts, in essence.

Making matters worse, the Forest Service admitted that its post-fire logging operations are killing nearly three-quarters of the post-fire conifer regeneration that is naturally occurring in the high-intensity fire patches of the Rim fire. After logging, the Forest Service plans to spray toxic herbicides on the logged areas to kill the native shrubs, and then proposes to create artificial tree plantations—at a total cost to taxpayers of about $3 million for every 1,000 acres of such actions.

Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism here. In response to the growing controversy and opposition to the Forest Service’s plans in the Rim fire, the agency’s summer 2016 decision deferred logging of intact snag forest habitat for at least another two years, choosing to instead focus artificial tree planting in areas that have already been clearcut. This is important because the post-fire conifer growth gets taller and more abundant with time. With every passing year, it will be harder and harder for the Forest Service to ignore the growing evidence of natural forest regeneration across many thousands of acres where they currently claim, inaccurately, that none exists.

This is good news for Black-backed woodpeckers, Spotted owls, wood warblers, and many other wildlife species associated with snag forest habitat. Perhaps within the next two years we may also begin to persuade the Forest Service that these areas of snag forest habitat are not “destroyed” or “damaged” landscapes as the agency initially assumed but, rather, are ecological treasures that should be protected.

Chad Hanson, Ph.D., is a research ecologist with the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, and is the co-editor and co-author of the 2015 book, The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix.

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