A new gold rush may be on in California's Sierra Nevada mountains, but this time the treasure is burned trees to salvage for lumber.
The Rim Fire that charred a quarter-million acres of the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park over the summer left an estimated one billion board feet of salvageable dead trees—enough to build 63,000 homes. The logging industry and its supporters are racing to get it, saying such work would provide jobs in the economically downtrodden region.
Sierra Pacific Industries Inc. has started felling trees on about 10,000 acres of its land that got caught up in the inferno. Now, Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, whose district covers the area, has introduced legislation in Congress that would waive environmental regulations so salvage logging can begin quickly on the national forest as well.
"If any good can come of this tragedy, it would be the timely salvage of fire-killed timber that could provide employment to local mills and desperately needed economic activity to mountain communities," said McClintock, a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
But Rep. Peter DeFazio, ranking Democrat on the committee, said McClintock's bill—which was heard in a committee hearing Oct. 3—"would be a license to clear-cut the entire burn area."
DeFazio said he supports more limited salvage logging, while some environmental groups back almost none at all, saying it hurts forests by removing trees that provide nutrients for soil and habitat for wildlife.
The industry has about a two-year window to remove the trees before they succumb to rot and insect damage and become commercially worthless, timber officials say. "The first tragedy to the forest has already happened," said Mike Albrecht, president of Sierra Resource Management Inc., a logging company in Jamestown, Calif., now doing salvage work on private lands. "The second tragedy would be not to salvage it."
If approved, the logging would be the biggest salvage-removal job in the Sierra in decades, which the industry says would boost local counties and the state's timber industry. Mr. Albrecht said he would likely have to increase his 10-person logging crew to 15, while the total number of salvage loads hauled out of the forest would rise to 250 a day from 160 a day now.
Those jobs would go to people like Don Fulton, an 80-year-old who runs a family-owned crew in Tuolumne County. He has had little business in recent years because of environmental rules on logging and other factors, and last year the company worked for just six months, said his daughter, Tammy Power. If salvage logging were approved, "he will go 24-7 until that salvage is out," Power said.
For bigger companies like Sierra Pacific, logging healthy trees versus dead ones is more of a wash, said Mark Luster, spokesman for the Anderson, Calif., timber giant. "We are mainly shifting from green [logging] to salvage," Luster said. Another limitation of the economic benefit, other industry officials say, is that there are only enough mills to process about half the available timber, or 500 million board feet of lumber.
But officials in the rural counties affected by the fire, which started Aug. 17 from an undetermined cause and was 95% contained as of Friday, said the logging would give them a boost. "We will have to import trucks and labor, so certainly it will help our county," said Karl Rodefer, a supervisor in Tuolumne County, where the Rim Fire was concentrated. He added that removal of the dead trees would also keep them from acting as more fuel in a future fire.