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Half-Hearted Fanatic: Is salvage too savage?
Sloan Shoemaker

Full disclosure … I am biased.

I believe that there’s wisdom in nature that’s greater than we can comprehend. Following that premise, my default is restraint — that we humans ought to be humbly restrained when tempted to interfere with or manipulate natural processes. History is rife with examples of how our well-intended but misguided attempts to bend nature to our will ends in disastrous unintended consequences. One of the clearest is our now-discredited notion that we can fire-proof the nation’s forests to protect timber. Fire suppression come back to bite us in the ass — big time — resulting in an extreme fuels build-up that causes severe fire behavior on an unprecedented scale.

With that in mind, the White River National Forest’s recently-announced Basalt Mountain Salvage and Rehabilitation Project warrants a closer look and a robust community dialogue. I don’t believe it’s categorically bad or misguided, but several elements warrant scrutiny.

To be fair, the U.S. Forest Service’s mission is codified in laws like the Multiple Use, Sustained Yield Act of 1960, which requires the Forest Service to provide a sustainable supply of timber to the nation in balance with other values like watershed protection, recreation, fish and wildlife, grazing and minerals.

Congress sets the USFS’ annual budget and tells the Forest Service how much timber it needs to cut each year. Individual national forests like the White River are assigned timber targets, leaving local foresters to scour the landscape for enough trees. If they don’t, their performance reviews reflect it, and their careers take a hit. With that in mind, I follow the guidance I got from Leadership Aspen (now Roaring Fork Leadership) — hard on the issues, soft on the people.

The Lake Christine Fire on Basalt Mountain last summer was a huge reality check. Though started by humans, it could just as easily been ignited by lightning with the same result. We live in fire-dependent forest ecosystems and wildfire is inevitable and essential for forest renewal. We’ve been pretty lucky to date, but don’t expect that to last.

Now that the fire’s out, what, if anything, should be done?

The Basalt Mountain Salvage and Rehabilitation Project is the White River National Forest’s answer. All Forest Service decisions start with the Forest Plan, which determines how each acre of the WRNF will be managed. Most of Basalt Mountain is zoned as Management Area 5.4 — Forested Flora and Fauna Habitats.

Sounds lovely.

What’s not to like, right?

This management prescription provides a pretty broad mix of uses, including being part of the WRNF’s suitable timber base. That means these lands have been identified as suitable for a long-term timber-harvesting program in which trees are managed like crops. That’s the fundamental basis of this project. Surprised to find out your favorite backyard wildlands are considered a timber crop?

You’re forgiven if you don’t know what salvage logging is. It’s looking at the forest through an economic lens, harvesting fire-blackened trees to recover some economic value that would otherwise be lost. Trouble is, economic isn’t the only value. Post-fire trees decay to replenish soils with nutrients and biomass, help hold water and provide important habitat for insects and cavity-nesting birds. Salvage logging removes merchantable logs, requiring lots of ground-disturbing activity — exactly what shouldn’t be occurring on the fragile soils left in the fire’s wake.

There are entire books written about the ecologically damaging impacts of salvage logging.

But, the Forest Service must meet its timber targets and sees this situation opportunistically.

Probably something we can all agree on is the removal of hazard trees. A hazard tree is one weakened by some event and when it falls is likely to hit something that we value, like our vehicles, power lines, roads, or heads. These aren’t in the backcountry but where people concentrate. The WRNF proposes cutting all hazard trees within 200 feet of roads.

Two hundred feet is overkill — there aren’t any 200-foot-tall trees up there. But the Forest Service is giving itself some discretionary leeway. I’m told it doesn’t necessarily mean a denuded strip 200 feet wide along all roads.

Rehabilitation in this case largely means ensuring that the timber base comes back. To the WRNF’s credit, the plan is to monitor natural revegetation to assess whether it’s coming back as quickly as desired. If so, that’s great. If not, the agency will undertake a large tree planting effort. Trouble is, the Forest Services’ superimposed human values — and what nature in a changing climate actually does — may not align. If so, that degree of separation playing out over decades can open up a huge discrepancy between what naturally ought to be there and an artificial situation created by human will, replete with unintended consequences we can’t currently predict.

A few other project components warrant mention:

• Five miles of temporary road are proposed — though the Forest Service promises to obliterate them when done, it still gives pause due to expense and damage to soils and regrowth.

• Questionable private property protection — “defensible space” will be created on public land surrounding a private inholding up Cattle Creek. Why is this the taxpayer’s responsibility? Plus, as designed, it’s well outside of the area that actually influences a structure’s survivability.

• Feeding the biomass plant — salvaged trees that can’t be milled into 2x4s will go to the Gypsum biomass plant rather than being left on site to build the soil for the next forest.

This is the scoping phase where the Forest Service wants you to tell them what the scope of issues are that you want to see analyzed in the environmental impact review. The deadline to receive your comments is Dec. 28 or so. More info can be found here

Arriving in 1984, Shoemaker has lived in communities throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, finally putting down roots and raising a family in Carbondale. Having recently stepped down as Wilderness Workshop’s executive director after 20-plus years, he’s still wondering what he’s going to be when he grows up. This column may be a start.