As ashes cool, salvage work begins

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Charred trees from the Caribou Fire north of Eureka. (Mary Cloud Taylor photos/Daily Inter Lake file)

Fires have given way to snow in Northwest Montana, but local foresters are still focused on the region’s burned acres.

Fire-singed trees, called “snags” when dead, aren’t a total loss for the timber industry, said Chuck Roady, general manager at F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co.

“You can use the lumber for the same uses,” he told the Daily Inter Lake. “You could easily lose 20 to 25 percent of the [tree’s] value, because you’ve got to saw deeper into the log, and you can’t sell all the chips and sawdust.”

And loggers have only about a year to salvage those snags.

“You can’t let it sit through a lot of hot months, or you see the cracks start popping and the bugs start working on that fire kill.”

This reality has local land managers racing the calendar, working to complete the assessments and approvals needed for salvaged timber sales to go forward.

“Every warm body we’ve got on the forest is [working] in this direction,” Quinn Carver, natural resources and planning staff officer for Kootenai National Forest, said of salvage and cleanup. “The forest currently has about 200 people on staff, and I don’t think there’s one of us who isn’t working on this.”

Nearly 76,000 acres burned in Kootenai National Forest this year. Of those, Carver estimated that up to 10,000 acres are salvageable.

The first step toward cutting that timber is completing a Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) assessment, in which foresters scout out the landscape and identify measures needed to prevent runoff and landslides, and protect infrastructure.

“Our last BAER assessment was finalized yesterday,” Carver told the Daily Inter Lake Nov. 3. On National Forests and other federal lands, salvage operations must then go through review processes established by the National Environmental Policy Act.

That law requires different amounts of review and scrutiny depending on a project’s environmental impact. Those unlikely to be significant can receive a Categorical Exclusion from detailed analysis.

The ones that don’t gain that clearance require an Environmental Assessment outlining the project’s likely impacts, and those of potential alternatives.

Meanwhile, agencies seeking to salvage timber on lands with endangered species will also need to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on habitat protection, and gain a letter of concurrence from that agency. Carver said that this will need to be completed for some areas of the forest, like West Fork, but not more southerly zones.

Kootenai currently aims to gain categorical exclusions for the forest’s Tamarack and Gibralter areas, and complete environmental assessments for areas burned by the Caribou, West Fork, Cub and possibly Moose Peak fires. All will eventually take public comments, but only Tamarack has reached this stage so far.

Based on an environmental assessment’s outcome, the forest may also need to complete a more stringent Environmental Impact Statement. Roady hopes that won’t happen. “With fire salvage, you really don’t have the luxury of doing a full-blown EIS, because there’s not really a lot of value in the wood” upon completion.

Carver’s aware of that reality.

“You have to hit within a year to 18 months post-fire,” he told the Inter Lake. “Ideally we’d like to see NEPA decisions by June or July… [but] depending on the consultation we have to do, it could go into August.”

“Once a decision’s signed,” he continued, “it’s just like our normal process in a lot of ways,” with contracts going out for bid.

Roady gave the Forest Service “an A for effort,” but also sought faster deals on state lands.

“The state will have fire salvage sales, I bet, before the end of the year, and part of that reason is that the state goes through MEPA,” the Montana Environmental Policy Act. “There’s light-years difference in the timeframes, deadlines, [and] public comment periods.”

That’s for a reason, said Dale Peters, forest management supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Plains Unit. “We’re mandated to manage our state lands and produce timber” for the state’s school trust funds.

“The Plains Unit’s gonna be putting up about 1.3 million board feet from these salvages,” in small sales ranging from a truckload of logs to 120 acres. “Some of it’s been sold” already, he told the Daily Inter Lake.

Not every charred trunk will meet a chainsaw.

“We can’t salvage everything,” Peters said.

Kootenai’s Carver explained that foresters will aim to leave as many live trees as possible standing, and that loggers will need to avoid working around “unsound snags.”

When the work is done, he predicted that “you’re going to have irregular units where every tree will be removed, but on the edges of that you’ll have five to 10 trees per acre, and then 20 to 40.”

These removals will likely make themselves felt on the landscape, said Andrew Larson, associate professor of forest ecology at the University of Montana. In a phone interview, he told the Daily Inter Lake that snags’ benefits include storing carbon, enriching the soil as they decay and providing habitat for a wide range of organisms.

“When you remove trees, you’re going to begin to erode those habitat functions... almost always, salvage logging comes at an ecological cost.”

But Larson hastened to add that “salvage logging doesn’t need to be a yes or no proposition.” As is the case with other aspects of forest management, it involves a balance between ecological costs and economic benefits.

“A lot of the time,” he said, foresters can turn a profit, and “you can meet most of the ecological and management objectives.”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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