The Manteca Bulletin asked a fair question: why should the public be concerned about the Forest Service’s proposal to log about 30,000 acres in the 257,000-acre Rim fire (Editorial, January 3, 2014)? The reasons are simple. The proposed logging would heavily target the rarest, most threatened, and most biologically diverse and rich forest habitat type in the Sierra Nevada—“snag forest habitat”—and it would further threaten numerous rare and declining wildlife species that depend on this habitat, including the Black-backed Woodpecker.
Snag forest habitat is created by higher-intensity fire that kills most or all of the trees in mature conifer forest (fire-killed trees are called “snags”). About 153,000 acres of conifer forest are in the Rim fire (the rest is non-conifer vegetation, such as foothill chaparral, and grassland), and only one-third of this conifer forest burned at higher-intensity levels, creating snag forest habitat. Of the approximately 51,000 acres of snag forest habitat created by the Rim fire on public lands, about half is on the Stanislaus National Forest, and most of this is proposed for intensive logging by the Forest Service. Much of it would be clearcut.
Those who assume that higher-intensity fire “destroys” the forest may wonder why this matters. It matters because every scientific study that has been conducted on this issue—including those done by the Forest Service itself—has found that snag forest habitat is as biologically diverse and rich as old-growth forest, and often more so. Many wildlife species are found primarily in snag forest habitat, and depend on it for survival, but most of these are now extremely rare, like the Black-backed Woodpecker, or are steeply declining in population, like the Olive-sided Flycatcher, and the Western Wood-Pewee. These species are seriously harmed by both fire suppression and post-fire logging.
While there are approximately 1.2 million acres of old-growth forest in the Sierra Nevada, there are less than 400,000 acres of snag forest habitat, even after including the Rim fire; and snag forest habitat typically only lasts for a few decades after fire, after which it is replaced by the naturally regrowing forest as part of natural succession. So, wildlife species that depend on this habitat need a constantly replenished supply from new mixed-intensity fires.
Of special concern is the Black-backed Woodpecker. One pair of Black-backeds needs about 100 to 200 acres, or more, of snag forest habitat to survive and successfully reproduce, and they generally only live at middle and upper elevations. In order to create suitable Black-backed Woodpecker habitat, the pre-fire forest must be mature, and dense, so that there will be at least 100 medium and large snags per acre in their territories. In the entire Rim fire area, only enough suitable habitat for as few as 100 pairs of Black-backed Woodpeckers was created, and a large proportion of this would be destroyed by the proposed logging (the Manteca Bulletin’s suggestion that there could be 6,000 Black-backeds in the Rim fire represents a vast overestimate—no Black-backed Woodpecker expert in the state believes the fire area can support anywhere near this number). In the entire Sierra Nevada, there are likely less than 700 pairs of this species, which is being considered for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. Numerous scientific studies have concluded that we have far less wildland fire, and less high-intensity fire, now than we did historically, due to fire suppression; and this deficit of post-fire habitat is worsened by post-fire logging.
In addition, the fate of Black-backed Woodpeckers has serious implications for other cavity-nesting species because the Black-backed is the strongest nest cavity excavator in North America. As part of the annual mating ritual for these monogamous birds, the male creates one to three new nest cavities in standing dead trees to impress his mate—even when the pair stays in the same territory. So, their previous nest cavities become homes for many other wildlife species that cannot make their own, such as bluebirds and wrens, and even flying squirrels and rare pine martens. Black-backed Woodpeckers are the homebuilders of the forest.
Further, it’s not just about the snags. The native, flowering shrubs that follow fire are critically important, and many post-fire habitat specialists depend upon this component of snag forest because it attracts native flying insects, which provide food for flycatchers and bats.
Over 150 scientists signed a letter opposing logging of the Rim fire. We as a society need to reconsider our views about fire in our forests. Higher-intensity fire is ecological restoration, not damage.
Chad Hanson, of the John Muir Project, has a Ph.D. in ecology from UC Davis, with a research focus on wildlife dependent upon post-fire habitat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.johnmuirproject.org.