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Forest Fire Scientists Oppose Salvage

Back in 1994, five of America's leading expert scientists in the field of forest ecology and forest fires wrote this letter to the President, the Congress, and the U.S. Forest Service. The scientists' message against salvage logging was simple and clear. In their own words,

"We know of no scientific reason to engage in salvage logging or roadbuilding in burned areas and we know of many sound reasons not to."

Scientifically, this remains true in 2009, and will be so in 3009.

Unfortunately, the timber industry and its allies continue to promote salvage logging. Their vehicle in 2005 was the Walden salvage logging legislation, H.R. 4200. It would have removed environmental protections that exist for our beleaguered public forest lands in order to promote more ecologically destructive logging on our national forests for the sake of private timber industry profits.

Salvage logging is a fraud. It does not restore forests, it destroys them.

Save America's Forests opposes legislation that promotes salvage logging on our national forests.

19 September 1994
The President
The White House
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

This season has brought not only substantial and extensive fires throughout much of the west, but also a renewed debate on the relationship between fire and logging. Throughout the region, post-fire salvage logging is being proposed formally and informally as an appropriate or even desirable reaction to the fires. Concerning the region's streams and rivers -- and the fish and other species that depend on those streams -- there is considerable scientific reason to believe that salvage logging and the accompanying roadbuilding is one of the most damaging management practices that could be proposed for burned areas.

Fires can have substantial and seemingly negative effects on streams, particularly smaller streams. Fires may affect the delivery of sediment, the availability of woody debris and other organic materials, and the cycling of nutrients. While fires rarely kill fish outright, fires may directly affect the food chains that ultimately support the fish. Most importantly, fires can sometimes radically accelerate the delivery of sediment to stream channels which -- if compounded by management -- can produce chronic and substantial loss of in-channel habitat, and seriously delay the biological recovery of the stream.

However, viewed at the right scale of time and space, fires are not disasters for streams, indeed fires can induce natural ecological changes that benefit streams and the species that depend on them. The natural recovery of streams after fires can result in improved fish habitat if we do not interfere with the natural recovery processes that initiate themselves soon after the fires are gone. Fire-killed trees are a vital part of both watershed and stream recovery, providing part of the natural environment of the reseeding and vegetative recovery of the watershed, and providing vital stabilizing structure in stream channels and floodplains. If fire-killed trees are logged out of the watershed, these functions, among others, are lost for decades, even centuries.

Fires by their nature are extremely patchy. The local effects of a given fire can vary substantially from site to site, and the impact of fire on streams may be correspondingly variable. This year's fires are expected to have the greatest effect on small streams, on streams whose headwaters burned, in areas where fire intensity was high, and in areas where fires consumed a larger proportions of the watershed. Sediment impacts are greatest in areas of steep slopes, shallow soils, unstable geologies, and where thunderstorm or rain-on-snow intensity may be high. Streams are most vulnerable in the first decade following the fire.

Management activities that reinforce negative effects or undermine positive effects of fires must be avoided if streams are to recover. In particular management activities that add to the risk of increased sedimentation or that remove ecologically important large wood from the watershed present a substantial and long term threat to the recovery of streams. In this regard, logging and roadbuilding represent one of the most significant forces threatening to retard stream and watershed recovery. Logging and roadbuilding accelerate sediment delivery rates, and are particularly risky to streams in areas of steep slopes, shallow soils, unstable geologies, and intense storms -- precisely the areas already at greatest risk from the fires themselves. Roads distort the movement of ground water, surface water, and sediment through the watershed and greatly increase the risk of mass failure -- landslides and debris torrents. Both logging and roadbuilding increase the risk and severity of scouring floods that degrade aquatic food chains. Adding timber harvest and road construction to an already fire-damaged watershed can only have negative and potentially sever effects.

We know of no scientific reason to engage in salvage logging or roadbuilding in burned areas and we know of many sound reasons not to. Logging produces no know benefits to the streams, and entails very serious risks. We therefore strongly oppose a general public program of salvage logging and the accompanying roadbuilding in burned areas, simply because they have burned.

A patchy burned landscape may appear to be a catastrophe for the streams, but it is not. Neither is it a crisis. We must not allow the appearance of crisis to be used to promote ecological inappropriate logging that may seriously retard natural recovery -- eventually even enhancement -- of the region's streams. As scientists, we believe the nation's public lands need a sound postfire policy, and we stand ready to assist in the development of that policy if that is desired.

Very respectfully yours,



s/ G. Wayne Minshall
Professor of Ecology
Idaho State University

s/ Christopher A. Frissell
Research Assistant Professor
Flathead Lake Biological Station
University of Montana
Research Associate,
Oregon State University



s/ James R. Karr
Institute of Environmental Studies
University of Washington

s/ Jack A. Stanford
Jesse M. Bierman Professor
Flathead Lake Biological Station
The University of Montana



s/ Judy L. Meyer
Professor of Ecology
University of Georgia


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