Does Salvaging Scorched Trees Hurt the Environment?

Removing trees killed by fires might not be as damaging to forests as previously thought.

When a forest burns, the aftermath is a post-apocalyptic landscape of smoldering black trunks. The forest’s managers, whether they work for the U.S. Forest Service or for private companies, sometimes send in heavy machinery to harvest the dead trees in a process called salvage logging, to turn them into boards or other products. The idea is that since the trees are already toast, the responsible thing is to get a little more value out of them before they start to rot, as well as to remove fuel for a future fire from the area.

But salvage logging can be controversial. It churns up the fire-damaged soil. It may introduce seeds from invasive species, carried by the machinery. And dead trees, known as snags, are habitats for woodpeckers and other wildlife. Does removing them hamper the long-term recovery of the forest? More than 10 years ago, researchers from of the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station decided to take advantage of a fire in the national forest near Mount Lassen, in Northern California, to study this question, and recently published their surprising results: At least on plant life, salvage logging did not have as much of an effect as one might expect.