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Klamath Forest Wildfire Plan Faces Pushback

<p>A stand of charred, dead trees remains after a raging wildfire burnt through the Klamath National Forest in 2014. A plan to thin out dead trees in an effort to protect the forest from future wildfires has faced stiff opposition.</p>
<p>A stand of charred, dead trees remains after a raging wildfire burnt through the Klamath National Forest in 2014. A plan to thin out dead trees in an effort to protect the forest from future wildfires has faced stiff opposition.</p>

During the summer of 2014, wildfires burned more than 200,000 acres of the Klamath National Forest in northern California’s Siskiyou County. Last year, the U.S. Forest Service proposed a program of salvage logging, replanting and hazardous tree removal. That plan faced opposition from environmental groups and the Karuk Indian tribe. Now, a modified version of the plan has been approved, and was immediately met with a challenge in federal court.

Klamath National Forest Supervisor Patricia Grantham said the decision to proceed with the plan comes after months of meticulous study and consideration of a wide range of viewpoints.

"Treat everything, salvage harvest everything to do very little. So there was a whole spectrum of restoration actions at our doorstep," she said.

The plan calls for removing the remaining trees from more than 5,500 acres of severely-burned forest, most of it on steep slopes. It would cut down “hazard trees” along 320 miles of road, as well as plant nearly 13,000 acres of new tree seedlings and perform more than 24,000 acres of so-called “hazardous fuel reduction.” That includes cutting fire breaks along ridge tops and near homes and other structures.

Grantham said it’s important to clear away the burned trees to prevent future fires.

"Within 20 or 25 years, the standing dead trees, they fall down, brush comes through them and you just end up with this continuous fuel bed that when you get the next fire in there, it just ends up with a footprint of even larger high-severity fire," Grantham said.

But George Sexton – with the conservation group KS Wild – said recent studies show removing burned trees and planting seedlings is exactly the wrong way to limit future fires.

"When you clearcut, and you bring all those fuels down to the surface of the forest, and you plant a dense young plantation, those stands tend to reburn at a higher severity than stands that are not salvage logged," he said.

A better long-term fire strategy, Sexton said, "is to focus your logging activities near homes and communities that you want to protect, on ridgelines that you want to use to bifurcate watersheds, and then to use periodic prescribed fire to try to get fire back into those ecosystems on your own terms."

Sexton notes salvage logging is planned in areas that have been restricted under the Northwest Forest Plan for spotted owl habitat. The fact that those acres have burned, he said, shouldn’t remove that protection.

Craig Tucker, with the Karuk tribe, said clearcutting fire-killed trees on steep slopes with unstable soil will also hurt threatened salmon in the streams below.

"And so we do have to leave some of those burned trees in these deep river canyons that hold the surface together. We just cannot afford to bury these spawning beds again by allowing them to go in there and clear cut the forest," Tucker said.

The lawsuit — filed by the Karuk and several conservation groups including KS Wild — focuses largely on the alleged impacts to salmon and other protected wildlife. Tucker said the tribe’s proposed alternative to the Forest Service plan would result in less risk to salmon and better long-term fire recovery.

"Y’know, Karuk’s been here for a long time. And what people may not realize is for thousands of years, people here used fire on a watershed scale to manage this landscape," he said.

The delay that could be caused by the legal challenge is worrisome to Ann Forest Burns. She’s with the American Forest Resource Council, a Portland-based industry group. Burns notes the longer killed trees stay in the forest, the more likely they are to decay and lose their market value.

"A year is optimum for salvage harvest, and we’re well beyond that now," she said.

Burns said these salvage timber sales are important to the timber companies she represents.

"They built their mills on the strength of availability of timber from public land. And when the public land is not managed, is not treated appropriately, that diminishes the horizon for their children and for their grandchildren, and for the children and grandchildren of their employees."

The Forest Service has begun auctioning off salvage timber units. George Sexton said if the Forest Service doesn’t agree to changes in the plan, the plaintiffs will seek an injunction to stop those sales from proceeding.

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