ROSEBURG - The chance to restore conifer forests to large areas of last year's 400,000-acre Biscuit Fire in Southwest Oregon is rapidly disappearing, Oregon State University researchers say in a new report released today.
Weeds, shrubs and hardwoods will soon overwhelm this land, insect infestations will build in fire-injured trees and the value of salvage logging will evaporate, erasing an opportunity to defray some of the enormous costs involved.
Time is clearly the enemy of any reforestation actions that land managers choose to make to restore conifer forests, the scientists said. Reforestation actions that are delayed for any reason beyond the next two or three years will ultimately be unsuccessful without huge investments, the report concludes.
After that time period, the only financially prudent option will be for natural processes to restore conifer forests, which may take 50-100 years longer than it otherwise would, and due to recent climate changes may have a result that bears scant resemblance to the old growth forests that have been destroyed.
"The costs of any conifer reforestation efforts will double by next year and then triple or quadruple after that," said John Sessions, a university distinguished professor of forestry. "Standing dead timber which is now worth $100 million or more could be salvaged to help pay for forest restoration, but its salvage value will rapidly decrease and, due to the economics of its recovery, soon have no economic value."
The public and policy makers must consider the urgency of these reforestation and economic realities in their decisions about how the Biscuit Burn area should be managed, the OSU researchers say in their report. Otherwise, any management options or activities may become moot - too little, too late, too costly and largely ineffective.
This analysis was prepared by OSU forest management, forest science and forest engineering experts at the request of the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, who wanted a professional analysis of the consequences of actions - or inactions - on this vast, burned acreage in the next one to five years, and released today's report at a conference in Roseburg.
The Biscuit Fire, which began July 13, 2002, was the largest recorded fire in Oregon history and burned about 400,000 acres in the Siskiyou National Forest, including virtually all of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. It was also the nation's most expensive fire suppression effort of last year, costing by some estimates $150 million to fight.
Most of the burned area was designated by the Northwest Forest Plan to protect late successional, or "old-growth" forest characteristics, in a blend of national wilderness area, late-successional reserves, and some roadless recreation areas. A small part of the burned area - about 10 percent - was designated for multiple use and timber production.
"The key point that needs to be made is that most of the burned area is supposed to be managed for older forest characteristics and much of it is now dead or dying trees," said Sessions.
"A lot of this forest land got its start in the late 1700s during a wetter, cooler period called the Little Ice Age," he said. "The climate is now warmer and more conducive to shrubs and hardwoods. And we also now have foreign plant diseases to deal with. The survival of several conifer species may depend on planting recently developed disease-resistant seedlings."
"Left to nature, it is unlikely the most intensely burned lands will ever return to their former status, and even if they do it will take decades, perhaps even centuries longer than it would if we helped them along with appropriate reforestation efforts."
A lack of human intervention where the Biscuit Fire was hottest and most intense will quite probably lead to "cycles of shrubs and fires until the climate returns to cooler and wetter conditions," the researchers said in their report. A vast area that was once home to northern spotted owls and 300 other wildlife species may be reduced to huge fields of shrubs, madrone and tanoak that are tenacious in these dry, rocky soils. And the enormous amounts of dead timber will ultimately fall, layering the forest floor with fuel for future fires that could have far more destructive impacts on soils than the original Biscuit Fire and further delay, for decades or more, the land's recovery.
This year, the Forest Service is replanting about 1,000 acres out of the 400,000 acres burned, and tentatively has longer-term plans to replant about 31,000 acres, a small percentage of the 225,000 acres that burned outside the wilderness area and that might be a candidate for reforestation. Even that modest effort will be hugely expensive and costs will increase with time. The study estimated that replanting intensely burned areas without use of herbicides could cost $51 million if done next year and more than $270 million if delayed until 2007. Of perhaps even greater significance, the success rate of reforestation falls sharply over time as the young trees must compete with well-established shrubs.
Salvage logging plans that could help pay for reforestation programs are also off to a slow start. There are immediate plans to salvage less than 1 percent of the four billion board feet of timber existing in trees killed by the Biscuit Fire, and any future logging will be a race against time - by 2006, the researchers estimate, the declining value of fire-killed trees due to rot, decay and insect infestation will make them valueless for wood products.
At the moment, environmentally-sensitive logging with helicopters could produce 1 billion board feet of timber salvage with a stumpage value of $100 million, and other "light-on-the-land" approaches could increase that yield. Other mechanisms are available that have been successfully used elsewhere to expedite salvage logging, several of which the OSU researchers outlined in their report. Experimental management of burned areas outside the Kalmiopsis Wilderness would also provide a "once in a lifetime" opportunity to compare the effects of active forest restoration, versus no action, on two large, contiguous areas that have experienced the same major environmental impact, the study said.
"There are many actions managers could take to help the Biscuit landscape return to forests more quickly and in the process protect soils, streams, wildlife, and achieve the old-growth characteristics that most of the region is designated for," Sessions said. "But what we want the public to understand is that the window of opportunity is closing, very quickly. If management decisions are not made and acted upon very soon, nature will replace old forests with shrublands for a very long time into the future."