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Wildfire salvage logging could bring funds, challenges

Maximizing salvage logging on Oregon forests that burned in major September 2020 wildfires could generate nearly $10 million for Jackson County, but proposals call for logging much less — and environmental challenges could derail those plans.

Logging burned trees off Bureau of Land Management districts in the state that were hard hit by the fires could generate 420 million board feet of timber, which would translate into about $63 million in shared timber receipts for counties, according to estimates by Chris Cadwell, forester/analyst for the Association of O&C Counties and a former BLM forester.

Jackson County receives almost 16% of shared timber receipts.

However, BLM is planning to salvage log about 100 million board feet of that 420 million board feet in 2021, Cadwell told Jackson County commissioners in a briefing this week.

“The 2021 timber sales plans are estimated to capture less than 25% of this potential volume from this harvest land base from what we can tell so far,” he said.

Cadwell said standing burned trees need to be logged quickly, before they deteriorate.

“It’s just a very modest amount that’s going to be harvested in this first year. These dead trees have a shelf life of about a maximum of three years,” he said.

Cadwell estimates there are 420 million board feet of merchantable timber on BLM land that is designated for sustainable timber harvest.

There is much more — about 1.6 billion board feet — that can’t be salvage logged because it’s set aside in reserves. The hands-off approach to that wood translates into about $240 million in lost timber receipts for counties, he estimated.

“The first order of the day is just to make people aware of the situation,” Cadwell said.

The only logging that can occur in the reserves is the cutting of hazardous trees next to roads, he said.

There are 18 counties in Oregon that get a share of timber revenue off BLM land known as O & C lands. Those lands are named after the Oregon and California Railroad, which was granted land by the federal government in the 1800s as an incentive to build railroad lines. The federal government later took the land back.

Jackson County doesn’t earn property taxes off BLM land, although it still has to spend money on services like law enforcement and search-and-rescue operations there.

The county used to earn the equivalent of $28 million in today’s dollars from shared logging revenue off federal lands. Environmental controversies, including over spotted owl habitat, significantly cut logging in the 1990s.

Since then, the county has been getting much smaller payments from the federal government to help offset financial losses from reduced logging on federal lands. The county received $5 million in April 2020.

Over the years, the county has responded to the losses in different ways, including requiring its parks system and The Expo to become self-supporting with user fees. Voters created a special district financed through extra property taxes to fund library services.

Jackson County commissioners have consistently advocated for increased logging on O & C lands, saying that would cut fire danger in overcrowded forests, reduce wildfire smoke, improve the economy and reduce the tax burden on residents through the generation of timber revenue for the county.

Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts said this week the information from Cadwell shows the importance of continued advocacy by commissioners. She said she supports harvesting the burned forests.

“It’s important advocacy for common sense and getting some of this burned timber out,” Roberts said.

Cadwell said he doesn’t know if BLM will be successful in its plan for this year to salvage log almost 25% of burned trees on land designated for sustainable harvest.

“There’s a coalition of environmental organizations who already sent a letter to Congress asking that no salvage be conducted. They have threatened to protest and litigate once these sale decisions are made,” he said.

Environmental groups could ruin the potential timber receipts for counties if they can delay salvage logging, Cadwell said.

George Sexton, conservation director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland, said the organization generally agrees with cutting burned trees next to roads. But it would probably seek to stop widespread logging of burned forests, he said.

“There are some public land managers who view post-fire forests as an excuse to throw out the rule book and go back to old-school clear-cutting,” Sexton said.

He said cutting large dead trees and replanting forests with dense plantations of trees, especially fire-prone Douglas fir, increases wildfire risk.

Sexton said viewing the O & C lands as a tool to generate revenue for counties doesn’t take into account their importance for recreation, watershed protection, wildlife habitat and other values.

Rather than logging burned forests, Sexton said BLM should thin small-diameter trees and plantations to reduce wildfire risk.

“Their time and energy would be better focused on trying to develop restoration proposals. That’s the future. That’s what everyone wants,” he said.

Sexton said owners of private timberlands were also hard-hit by the 2020 wildfires. They are carrying out salvage logging.

“There’s a lot of post-fire material on the market. I don’t know if the mills are clamoring for more,” he said.

Cadwell said the market remains strong and there’s a big appetite for salvaged trees, especially given the demand for wood products for the housing market.

In years to come, Cadwell said, contrasts will become apparent between BLM lands that had limited or no salvage logging, and private timber lands that were quickly salvaged and replanted. People will be able to see those differences for themselves as they drive along Oregon highways.

Scientific research shows there are pros and cons to salvage logging.

On one side, salvage logging can recover economic value from burned forests, remove charred trees that can burn in the next fire, reduce danger to firefighters from falling snags during future fires, reduce erosion by breaking up the water-repellent layer that can form after fires, limit erosion if slash is scattered on the ground, set the stage for replanting new trees, and boost the numbers of flowering plants and bees.

But salvage logging can also increase erosion and send sediment into streams, compact the soil, reduce the numbers of standing dead trees that provide habitat for birds and other wildlife, remove large fire-resistant trees, spread invasive plants and remove seed-carrying trees needed for natural regeneration. Quick, dense replanting can limit biodiversity and create flammable young tree plantations.

Unseasonably hot weather in September 2020 and high winds with gusts up to 60 mph contributed to wildfires that burned more than 1 million acres across Oregon — double the 10-year average, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.

The fires destroyed more than 4,000 homes, including 2,500 residential structures in Jackson County.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Wildfires in September 2020 burned more than 1 million acres across Oregon, setting the stage for a debate about salvage logging of burned trees. (Oregon Dept. of Forestry photo)