Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Logging prevents burning?

The LA Times reports today that the California AG is filing suit against the Bush Administration to halt a newly revamped logging plan for almost 11 million acres of timber in the Sierra Nevada. Not surprisingly, this plan increases logging volumes by something like a factor of 6 over the next ten years. Even less surprising, the Administration is claiming that this needs to be done to prevent fires in California's forests.

Now, I think there is a general consensus that much of our western timberlands are in drastic need of timber thinning. Likewise, I think there's a somewhat weaker consensus that it's impracticable for the federal government to do all this thinning by itself. This means, of course, that private timber companies will be doing most of the work, which means they need some incentive. In this case, that incentive is called 30-inch trees.

Nice. In essence, the Administration wants to cut down the biggest, most fire-proof trees in the forest to make it profitable to cut down the smaller, least fire-proof trees in the forest. This begs the question: what's left of the forest and what's to prevent it from burning?

The article highlights one problem with cutting down the biggest trees: it reduces shade cover and results in a general drying-out of the remaining timber. Another problem with timber harvesting that the article does not address is that it creates large quantities of detritus or, in the industry parlance, slash. This slash is the left-over limbs, needles, and undergrowth that aren't commercially viable. I seem to recall reading that the average timber operation leaves 45 tons of slash per acre. I could be wrong, but 45 tons of dry, dead slash sounds like a pretty good fuel source to me.

So here's what I'd like to know. Does the new timber plan include regulations to reduce the amount of slash? Does the new timber plan include analysis of the pre-harvest fire risk and attempt to assess post-harvest fire risk? If not, is the claim that this harvest is intended to reduce fires merely a cover for increased harvesting?