One of the most depressing things in this world to look at is a forest that has been damaged by natural disaster. Fire, insect infestation, flooding, earthquake, mudslide, hurricane…the result is a pile of broken matchsticks and woeful looking plants. I’d argue that looking at a clearcut is even worse because it’s a sober reminder of the damage that humans can hand out to the natural world, but the aftermath of something nature has done is not a pleasant sight. One might reasonably wonder if the forest will ever look the same again, or if it’s permanently doomed to looking entirely disreputable. How can anything survive? Will the animals come back?
As it turns out, nature has a lot of practice with this sort of thing. Forests have been subjected to tremendous insults since long before humans came around, and they always recovered. Trees are still around. Different trees than there were, say, four million years ago, but trees still exist and seem to be doing quite well for themselves, sometimes despite our best efforts. If there’s one thing we have learned from the natural world, it’s that it can be very good at shifting for itself and restoring its own balance, when given half a chance to do so.
Unfortunately for forests, such opportunities are not always provided. A very common practice in the wake of disaster damage is salvage logging. As the name implies, it ‘salvages’ the timber on site. Salvage logging operations are given some special dispensations. They are excused from a lot of environmental regulations including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act. Logging for salvage operations is permitted in areas that are normally protected and off limits. And the proceeds of salvage logging are sold on the open market, just like those from regular logging.
There are a number of arguments advanced in support of salvage logging. It’s supposed to reduce the risk of fire, facilitate recovery, and clean up ugly sights. Furthermore, the argument goes, all of that timber is going to rot, so it might as well be put to good use. Why not log it, sell it, and raise some capital? That capital could even be used to finance replanting operations to help the forest recover, after all. A win win for everyone, surely!
Well, except that it’s not. It’s been recognized for a pretty extended period of time that the best way to help the forest recover is to leave it alone. The difference between forests left to their own devices and salvage logged areas is quite stark. All of that dead material breaks down, adding organic materials to the soil and facilitating the growth of trees and shrubs. Animals return. The forest recovers, because that is what the forest does. It develops responses to environmental damage and moves forward. If forests didn’t do that, we wouldn’t have any trees left, and the world would be a very different place.
In fact, salvage logging is actively harmful. Logging ruins topsoil. It turns to loose, sandy, useless powder that blows away in the wind and trickles away in rivers and streams. Logging roads slash through the landscape, contributing further to soil degredation and disrupting animal populations. Heavy equipment shreds seedlings returning in the wake of disaster. Removing dead trees and plants, rich sources of compost, leaves no way for the soil to recover and reduces biodiversity. Taking away all leaf litter and replanting results in a forest of uniform age and composition. That makes wildfires burn hotter and fiercer. And faster, as well; the fire tears through the available fuel and leaves the forest stripped again.
In some operations, environmentalists have documented ‘green salvage,’ which involves taking living trees, something that is not supposed to happen. Trees are surprisingly resilient and a trunk that appears dead may actually be alive and capable of recovery if it is given an opportunity to do so. Greenery will come back. The tree will slowly reorganise itself and gather the necessary nutrients and start growing again. If that tree is cut down, it is denied this opportunity and the forest is also deprived of shelter, a sink for nutrients, and other benefits.
When green salvage involves old growth, it’s hard to write it off to an innocent mistake; such trees can be extremely valuable and when they are normally off limits by law, it’s easy to imagine timber companies ‘accidentally’ cutting down a few old growth trees during a salvage operation, perhaps with the argument that it will make the operation worth it.
Because salvage logging is not even all that profitable. Salvaged timber is not very useful stuff. It fetches a low price on the open market because it is often damaged. Pieces are small, which cuts down on overall value, and they may be cracked, twisted, waterlogged, weakened, or charred. Salvage timber from, say, a forest infested with beetles is excluded from a lot of uses and is thus unappealing to brokers and buyers. It’s not that uncommon for timber companies to make less from the sales than they spent on the salvage logging.
Why does salvage logging continue? In part because a lot of the research to show that it’s not practical or a terribly good idea still needs to be confirmed. And because it’s promoted by numerous people including the timber industry and folks who argue that it creates jobs in logging communities. It’s hard for politicians to take actions that appear to be taking jobs away, especially in a poor economy, even if it is for a good environmental cause. Thus, salvage logging continues and our forests keep suffering as a result.
The only way to meaningfully put a stop to salvage logging is by addressing individual operations. Examining public filings for timber harvest plans provides information about planned logging operations, including salvage logging plans. Environmental organizations or communities can bring suit to demonstrate that, in an individual case, the operation will be harmful and should be stopped, and if the court agrees, the forest gets a second chance.
This is clearly inefficient and indicates that we need to be talking about long term reform of timber policy, especially policy regarding damaged forests. Actually studying this issue and improving forest management in the United States would, gasp, create jobs, incidentally.