The ground crunches beneath my feet as I walk through the area burned by the Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest.
The charred floor looks like land one might find in Death Valley rather than the lush Sierra Nevada. Not a speck of green in sight.
“What you’re seeing is some of the most intense burned areas in the Rim Fire on the Stanislaus National Forest," says Dave Horak, a timber management officer with the US Forest Service as we look out over mountains at top of a hill.
"You can see basically 60,000 acres of it from where you’re standing right here,” says Horak.
(Severely burned area of Rim Fire where about 60,000 acres can be seen Photo: Amy Quinton)
Many of the trees are black sticks, no leaves. Stumps and root systems that once provided wildlife habitat are now dangerous.
“So when the ground fire burned through, all the root areas here got burned out while the soil stayed intact," says Horak. "So it created these false kind of tunnels under the ground where you can fall through this area.”
In the distance you can hear chainsaws still clearing downed trees from transmission lines of the Hetch Hetchy Project.
At one point, the Rim fire burned 70,000 acres in two days. 45-percent of the forest burned severely. It’s hard to imagine that anything is salvageable, but it is.
(Red and yellow in map show how the fire spread in two days. Map courtesy Kent van Wagtendonk, Yosemite National Park)
Machinery is already cutting and felling trees burned on private land owned by Sierra Pacific Industries.
“The tragedy has already occurred with the burn the next tragedy would be to just let it go to waste, so we want to rapidly get in and salvage this,” says Mike Albrecht, President of the logging company Sierra Resource Management.
He says the timber industry could salvage about a quarter of the area damaged in the Stanislaus forest.
(Private land burned by the Rim Fire is already being logged. Photo By Amy Quinton)
That could bring in $300 million to $400 million board feet and keep the timber industry busy for two and a half years. But he says it needs to happen quickly.
“Most of the salvage will need to occur within the next two years to really maximize the wood value," says Albrecht. "When I say two years, really half of that year is gone in snow and rain so we only have about 12 to 16 working months.”
Republican Congressman Tom McClintock has introduced legislation to expedite the process by suspending environmental reviews which can take a year under federal regulations.
But environmentalists say the public’s forests don’t belong to the timber industry.
“The economic factor is not the driving force anymore," says Terry Davis, Director of the Motherlode Chapter of the Sierra Club. "The public’s forests are managed for much more diverse needs and fundamentally, ecology, make sure that we have functional ecosystems.”
Davis says much of the areas of the Rim fire should be left alone because downed trees and brush are important to wildlife.
He says the focus should be on replanting.
But the science isn’t straightforward, especially in California, says Malcolm North with the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station in Davis.
“The literature currently would suggest that there are problems with salvage logging ecologically," he says. "But I think that a lot of that comes from different places, and so we don’t know exactly what the effects of salvage logging are going to be here.”
North suggests a more cautious approach, logging smaller trees –less than 30 inches in diameter - that are only in the Sierra because of decades of fire suppression.
Maria Benech, a Rim Fire Recovery team leader with the Stanislaus National Forest, says one issue making the problem more complex is that the fire burned severely in such a vast area, no natural regeneration will happen without replanting.
(Red in map shows the high severity fire area. Map courtesy Jay Miller of US Forest Service Fire and Aviation)
“If we want to replant in those areas, just having all that material on the ground, or worse yet, standing and trying to plant under it, when those trees fall it basically destroys those seedlings that are trying to get up through those trees,” says Benech.
(Video shows private land affected by Rim Fire being salvaged.)