One fire, two views

With the controversy over post-fire salvage logging on public forestlands burning outside — highlighted by two unidentified protesters sitting in trees on the Southern Oregon University campus — two experts with differing views calmly debated in a campus classroom Thursday.

No voices were raised; no fists were doubled.

But they rarely agreed, particularly when it came to salvaging fire-killed timber from the half-million-acre 2002 Biscuit fire that burned largely in the Siskiyou National Forest.

John Sessions is an Oregon State University College of Forestry professor and one of the lead researchers in a controversial report produced last year that concluded some 2.5 billion board feet of salvage could be harvested from the fire. He wanted it known at the outset that the report does not recommend salvage.

"We don’t make any recommendation as to any level of activity," he said, rebutting a claim often made by environmental activists that he supports salvage.

"The question that has been asked (of us) was not what the ultimate outcome should be, but (what) type of considerations are influenced by action or inaction in the short-term," he said. "And that is all what this report is about."

The report concentrated on the potential for hastening forest growth, reducing future fire risk in conifer forests and looking at options if the agencies wanted to salvage some economic value, he said.

Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist who is director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Klamath-Siskiyou Regional Program, said the question asked of the report’s authors was all wrong.

"One of the things that gets missed in this discussion is importance of place," DellaSala said of the Klamath-Siskiyou region. "This is not like any other place on Earth. It’s one of the most important regions on the globe in terms of biodiversity."

DellaSala said the landscape has been shaped by about 150 million years of natural processes, including fire.

"One may argue that our region has been born out of fire," he said. "It is uniquely adapted to deal with fire as a process."

At the outset of the two-hour debate, moderator Selene Aitken, a member of the SOU staff, asked that those attending the session approach it with the "spirit of open inquiry."

Although audience members remained polite, it was clear they supported DellaSala, often clapping after he made his points.

Sessions, who had volunteered for the debate, is visiting the campus for the Siskiyou Chapter of the Society of American Foresters’ annual meeting.

The debate was not part of the conference. It was organized by the Wildlands Center and SOU’s Ecology Center of the Siskiyous.

The U.S. Forest Service is expected to make a decision on the Biscuit fire salvage this spring. Its preferred alternative calls for harvesting some 500 million board feet from the fire-killed trees in southwestern Oregon.

Both Sessions and DellaSala have multiple undergraduate degrees. Sessions has a doctorate in forest management; DellaSala, an adjunct professor at SOU, has a doctorate in forest ecology.

Both have written numerous forestry-related studies; both have traveled the globe as part of their forestry research.

In his opening remarks, Sessions, who noted that six people, several of whom were in the audience, had visited his Corvallis office and told him to "stay out of Southern Oregon," plunged into facts and figures contained in the report.

"The best estimates from the Forest Service are that it will be 160 years before we get 18-inch (diameter) conifers back," he said of allowing the forest to grow back on its own.

"The question for the agencies is: Should we shorten that recovery period?

"We know how to do it. We could shorten that period so large green conifers are back within 80 years."

Within a decade after that, that forest could be producing snags which most agree is necessary to provide wildlife habitat, he said.

The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan concludes that intervention is encouraged if the "natural vegetation recovery will not produce the desired income," he said, then hastily added, "outcome."

"I had to work a long time on that one," he quipped after laughter filled the hall. "Guys, that did put you at ease, didn’t it?"

With many in the crowd nodding, Sessions continued.

"Our report doesn’t make any recommendations but it does try to collect the evidence," he said. "But it says if you want large green trees and future dead trees of equal size to what is out there now and you want them quickly, then you plant."

The report does not say what, where or how many trees to plant, he said. It also concluded the cost of replanting triples within five years after the fire, he said.

"If you want to recover some economic value, for whatever reason, whether it’s to finance restoration, reduce future stand- maintenance costs or reduce fire risk into the future, then you can consider salvage," he said.

In his opening remarks, DellaSala rejected Sessions’ suggestion that humans can bring back a forest faster than Mother Nature.

Many of the plant species in the region are adapted to periodic wildfires which burn in a mosaic pattern, he said.

As a result of both the pattern of the burn and the natural survival process of plantlife after a fire, there is no reason for replanting, he said.

"There is plenty of seed sources to allow for natural recovery on that landscape," he said. " . . . This was not an ecological disaster."

Wildfires benefit forests, he said, citing one major benefit as biodiversity.

"When you look at how the Biscuit burned, it was mostly driven by climate and typography," he said. "As global warming continues to kick in . . . this will become the big driver on the landscape."

He also rejected arguments that salvage will benefit the environment, citing soil compaction and erosion.

"Another assumption is that dead trees are a waste," DellaSala said. "That’s a false assumption. Life and death in the forest are joined at the hip by the cycle of dying trees and what they provide for the forests."

Snag forests provide shade, erosion control and habitat for wildlife, he said.

"This is the dangerous feedback we are headed for: You take a natural forest, clearcut it or salvage log and plant it after a fire, creating a plantation that is a fire bomb," he said.

DellaSala believes the question should be what can be done to help the forest, not looking at how much money can be made, he said.

"This is not a recovery plan — this is a plan that will set back recovery for decades, if not have irreparable damage to this world-class system," he said.