The Controversial Practice of Post-Wildfire Salvage Logging

Forest fires are no joke. When they burn, they’re terrifying for nearby residents and wildlife alike. And in their wake, what’s left is often reminiscent of an apocalyptic wasteland.

Sometimes, in the aftermath of a fire, crews will visit forestland and harvest what dead trees they can. This process is called salvage logging.

To remove or not to remove? That is often the question.

Salvage logging refers the practice of logging trees in areas damaged by not only wildfire but also flooding, disease, severe wind, or other means to recover economic value that would otherwise be lost. Salvaged trees can be turned into boards, furniture, paper, or a number of other wood products.

Sounds great, right? Well, salvage logging is not without controversy.

Those in favor of salvage logging say the idea is responsible in getting value out of burned trees before they start to rot (and are then economically valueless). Another pro-salvage logging point is that the process removes fuel for future fires in these areas. Anyone with a fireplace knows that aged wood burns better than green wood.

Those against salvage logging point out that it might do more harm than good by churning up fire-damaged soil, potentially introducing seeds of invasive species on machinery, and removing habitats for wildlife (woodpeckers and other animals rely on standing dead trees, known as snags). Machinery can also damage shrub cover and compact the soil.

How to help heal the burn.

There is definitely some ecological value in leaving forests alone after a burn.

For example, wood-boring beetles lay their eggs in dead trees. When these eggs become grubs, they attract woodpeckers to the area. There’s also the point of pyrophytes—plants that have adapted to tolerate fire. In some species, including the lodgepole pine, the resin-sealed cones or fruits actually require the heat from fire to melt the resin, and then reproduce.

While there are clearly both ecological pros and cons, the overall ecological impact (long-term) is still uncertain. The information available from studies often leads to contradictory conclusions. For example, logging a fire-savaged area can increase both runoff and erosion; however, it could, theoretically, also counteract it. Further, conclusive information is difficult to obtain because of the altered nature of the environments where these studies are conducted. Joseph Wagenbrenner, of Michigan Technological University, writes in the journal Forest Ecology and Management, that such alterations (made my logging) are “superimposed on a system that already has been highly altered by fire.” 

The contradictions, and therefore controversy, have a lot to do with the sheer number of variables at play when determining impact. No two landscapes are identical and it is difficult separating the post-fire logging effects from the fire effects themselves.

When to do it.

Salvage logging needs to be done in a fire-affected area within one to two and a half years or else the dead trees will rot, so deciding whether or not to log an area needs to be made relatively quickly. When done poorly, salvage logging can hurt live trees that would otherwise thrive and, if dead kindling is left on the ground, can actually increase the risk of future fires. However, when done correctly, it can also mitigate hazards, such as downfall.

As with just about everything, moderation might be key for salvage logging: knowing when it’s appropriate and to what extent. The sooner after a fire, for instance, the better. This isn’t just to prevent tree rot; salvage logging done as quickly as possible could help avoid inadvertent damage to native shrubs that germinate later. Sometimes, in instances where forest managers want less shrub cover to prevent overwhelming new tree seedlings, salvage logging could be a helpful solution to replace herbicide.

Besides the ecological pros and cons of salvage logging, the practice certainly provides economic benefit to local communities. This boost might be particularly beneficial—or needed—in areas devastated by wildfires. Not only does salvage logging provide employment opportunities in the months or years after a fire, it also can help fund reforestation efforts to bring forestland back from the brink of an apocalyptic wasteland.