Logging Against the Clock

By Beacon Staff

Timber companies and sawmills endured multiple work stoppages during 2007’s severe fire season, but while flames still flickered, officials at the Plum Creek Timber Company were already planning how to salvage the lumber from tens of thousands of burned acres.

According to Plum Creek’s Regional Northwest Manager Tom Ray, the company suffered roughly 41,000 acres of burned land from the summer’s five major fires: Brush Creek, Chippy Creek, Jocko Lakes, Mile Marker 124 and Black Cat fires. Although it’s too early to say definitively, Ray estimates about one-third of what was burnt will be salvageable. Plum Creek announced earlier this month that, after salvage logging, it will still have lost about $4 million in timber.

While the fires also burned on public land, it’s likely to be a year or longer before logging crews can go to work on fire-damaged lands in the Flathead National Forest, where 25,000 acres burned.

“We go through a carefully orchestrated process,” said Bryan Donner, district planning team leader for the Tally Lake District, where the Brush Creek fire burned. “It could take quite a while before we come to a decision about how to conduct this salvage logging.” The Forest Service currently has crews out assessing the burned areas to determine where salvage logging would be appropriate, and then will begin putting together a proposal for public review.

But in that time, burnt trees will dry out, crack and deteriorate significantly, grossly reducing the wood’s value and rendering it unsuitable for most purposes – which explains why salvage logging on private and tribal land is such a race against the clock.

Steve Robbins, Plum Creek’s resource manager for the Flathead Unit, has at least five contracts in place, three crews on the job already and is looking for more loggers.

“The longer you wait, the more it dies,” Robbins said. “Our concern is to get in and salvage timber just as quickly as we can.” Robbins and Ray emphasized logging crews will employ the same mitigation practices used on any other job, including reseeding, widening culverts, reinforcing some roads and designating riparian areas along waterways. The crews will try to get as much done as possible during the winter months, when snowpack and frozen ground minimize soil damage.

A few miles to the south, foresters for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, where the Chippy Creek fire burned 35,000 acres, hope to begin salvage logging in November.

“This year was the worst fire season since 1910 on the reservation,” said Rolan Becker, CSKT division manager for projects and forest planning. “It’s the biggest salvage project we’ve ever had.”

But first, a Findings of No Significant Impact, or FONSI, document must be signed by the Environmental Protection Agency superintendent and approved by the tribal council.

Becker is working with wildlife biologists to shelter some trout streams that suffered significant damage from the intense heat of the fires. While slightly daunted from the sheer magnitude of the salvage logging to be done, he estimates the harvest to be double the workload of a normal year.

“I think we’re looking at 30 to 40 million board-feet at least,” Becker said. “I will be real darn disappointed if we don’t get 30 million.”

Out of the land burned, Becker estimates 28,000 acres are timber – though the tribes don’t plan to log everything available, leaving alone burned land in primitive areas affected by the Jocko Lakes fire. Still, Becker anticipates a value between $8 million and $10 million from the salvage logging.

“The market is a little soft” for timber right now, he added, with a glut of burned wood coming to market. “We’re cognizant of the value.”

Foresters interviewed were bittersweet about salvage logging; while the timber harvest won’t make up for what was lost, it provides some consolation for a damaging fire season.

“We didn’t plan for it to burn,” Robbins said. “But we don’t want to let an opportunity go by that would cause any more lost opportunities than are already there.”