After nearly 10 percent of the 2-million-acre Lolo National Forest was hit by this summer’s wildfires, officials are working to decide how much burned timber can be salvaged before its economic value is lost.
While Montana lumber mills say the salvage sales could provide much needed logs for their operations, environmental groups are leery about the amount of timber that will be harvested and impacts to the forest that could occur.
“Based on our Forest Plan allocations and past experience with fire salvage, we can expect around 10 to 15 percent of the areas that burned to be identified for salvage,” said Lolo National Forest Supervisor Timothy Garcia.
So far, the Lolo Forest has announced plans to do salvage logging on 2,718 acres on the Sunrise Fire that burned a little over 26,000 acres near Superior. About 2,152 acres will be salvaged on the Sheep Gap fire that burned a little less than 10,000 acres east of Thompson Falls.
The agency is still analyzing the amount of acreage that will be salvaged from the area’s largest fire, Rice Ridge near Seeley Lake, as well as the Liberty Fire in the same area and Moose Peak near Thompson Falls.
No salvage work has been identified on the Lolo Peak Fire on the Lolo National Forest.
A senior manager from St. Regis’ Tricon Timber said that company isn’t certain why the Lolo Peak Fire was left off the list.
“We’re not going to just let that go,” said Tricon’s Willy Peck. “We plan to get out there and take a look. If they have legitimate reasons, then that’s fine. If it’s just a timing issue, then that’s unacceptable.”
Peck said the salvage sales will be “extremely important to Tricon. They will be our bread and butter for the next couple of years.”
Mineral County’s largest employer, Tricon laid off 90 employees in 2015 due to the expiration of the Softwood Lumber Agreement with Canada. Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Commerce set tariffs on Canadian softwood imports at 20 percent and higher after determining that Canada unfairly subsidizes its woods products industry.
“We continue to hope to add a second shift to provide more jobs for our area,” Peck said. “We are going to really need those logs from salvage sales to sustain our operation.”
Gordy Sanders, Pyramid Lumbers resource manager, said none of the state’s mills have years of timber volume under contract.
“We would all look forward to having the opportunity to have too much wood,” Sanders said.
The challenge facing the Forest Service and local mills is the trees killed in the fires won’t retain their value for long.
“We got a year and a half, although some species will last a little longer,” Sanders said. “After that, it starts coming apart pretty quickly. Some of it will start to blue. Once that happens, its value is automatically reduced. Even if the wood is perfectly clear, it will lose about 25 percent of its value.”
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Sanders said he’s heard there could be a fair amount of volume this year. Initial estimates suggested 50 million board feet, but Sanders said those numbers could drop.
Since the 160,000-acre Rice Ridge Fire was so close to Pyramid, Sanders said the mill is hopeful there will be a good deal of wood to salvage there.
“There are a lot of issues that can come together to shrink a project,” he said. “We think acreage-wise, it’s going to be a small percent, like 8,000 acres. Some of it burned so hot that it doesn’t have any value. They take out riparian, wilderness and roadless areas.”
All the mills right now are operating at less than full capacity.
“All the mills could ramp up if they had more wood coming in,” Sanders said. “All of the contractors in the woods could ramp up their production, too. We’re getting calls from eastern Washington and Idaho from contractors looking for work here.”
Swan View Coalition chair Keith Hammer said environmental organizations like his will be following the salvage issue closely.
“Our first red flag is this whole notion of calling it salvage,” Hammer said. “It implies the trees are going to waste. Dead trees are equally as valuable to green trees in an ecosystem. Essentially, it’s robbery. Trees have tremendous value in place either dead or alive.”
Dead trees are valuable for certain species of wildlife and when they fall, they help keep the soil from eroding.
“When trees do fall over, either soon after the fire or 10 years later, they provide a natural way to stabilize the soil and ash,” Hammer said. “It literally works like a water bar in a trail.”
Salvage sales also almost always require more roads, which equates to more long-term damage of sediment eroding into streams, Hammer said.
“Even if they’re careful, even if they do the work in the winter, they are running over a landscape that already has regrowth starting to sprout,” he said. “That can set that whole natural regeneration process back.”
Lolo Forest officials said they consider a lot of different factors before approving a salvage timber sale.
“Similar to past fire salvage efforts on the Lolo National Forest, resource protection measures would be applied to mitigate any potential effects from timber harvest and haul,” said Chris Partyka, Forest environmental coordinator. “The primary intent of salvage is to capture the economic value of the burned timber, however, not at the expense of other resources such as water, wildlife and fish, and long-term forest health.
“If completed before the product deteriorates, the value of the timber can be used to help pay for resource protections such as erosion control, reforestation and weed treatments,” Partyka said. “Along with timber product recovery, comes the concern for public safety. Despite tree felling during and immediately after the fires, a high number of snags and other hazards still exist along roads and near high-use areas, such as campgrounds and dispersed recreation sites. Our post-fire recovery and salvage efforts would address these concerns.”