After the Fire

On a winter day last February, it was standing room only in the Medford, Oregon, city hall. The attraction was a congressional hearing on salvage logging after wildfire, and so many people wanted to attend that the Medford fire chief waived the 200-person room capacity limit.

Technical reports rarely generate headlines. But in January, arguments about a one-page salvage logging paper by a team of five OSU researchers and one from the U.S.D.A. Forest Service in the journal Science had splashed across newspapers nationwide and spilled over into the political aisles. The paper focused on the ecological effects of post-fire salvage logging two and three years after the Biscuit fire in southwestern Oregon.

The debate, however, covered broader ground: academic freedom, funding and research ethics. It also revealed social tensions over forest management values and involved OSU scientists and their collaborators who are deep into more than a half-dozen studies on the environmental consequences of salvage logging and forest response to fire.

Testifying that day in Medford was, among others, the paper’s lead author, OSU graduate student Dan Donato. The firestorm that followed the publication, he said, underscored the scarcity of scientific data on the subject. The Science paper reflects observations after three years of work on the effects of salvage logging on natural regeneration and wood that, if left on the ground, could fuel future fires. He noted that the study is one of the few on this topic to use a rigorous approach based on scientifically approved methods and design with replication and control plots in logged and unlogged areas.

Nevertheless, Donato took criticism, standing his ground while becoming what The Washington Post called the hearing’s “principal punching bag.” Representative Brian Baird (D-Washington), co-sponsor with Greg Walden (R-Oregon) of legislation to speed approval of salvage logging, questioned Donato’s integrity and accused him of “deliberate bias.” Retired Bureau of Land Management manager Richard Drehobl called the paper a “gross misuse of the data,” charging that it presented no new or useful information.

Among others who testified, Hal Salwasser, dean of the OSU College of Forestry, and Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington emphasized the importance of research to management. Science and regular monitoring, they said, need to inform forest management, which should anticipate disturbances such as wildfires and adapt as new information emerges.

And the panel also heard from statisticians. Fred L. Ramsey, OSU professor emeritus, and Manuela M. P. Huso, a consultant with the OSU Department of Forest Science, had re-analyzed the data. They testified that the Donato team’s analysis supported the findings, which Huso called “quite robust.”

The Medford hearing touched only a small part of OSU’s ongoing research on this topic. In cooperation with the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Oregon Department of Forestry and other agencies, OSU scientists focus on a range of fire-related factors: wildlife, natural regeneration, soil, fire severity and pre-fire conditions, including past salvage logging.

These and other studies will help to fill critical information gaps. A 2001 Forest Service review found only 21 studies worldwide on the environmental effects of post-fire logging. Only 14 compared logged areas to unlogged controls.

Nevertheless, dead and living trees have long been harvested after fires. And relying on both natural regeneration and planting, foresters have traditionally sought to spur tree growth as quickly as possible, says David Hibbs, OSU professor of Forest Science and coordinator of OSU’s Cooperative Forest Ecosystem Research Program. As a result, forest managers have a rich bank of practical experience in reaching that goal. For their part, researchers focused on barriers to plant growth, the productivity of plant communities and forest succession over decades. One example: the College of Forestry’s Forestry Intensive Research program, begun in 1980 to evaluate reforestation options on shrub-dominated sites in southwest Oregon.

In recent years, a shift in social values has led to a change in science. Hibbs notes that the view of fire as destruction has broadened to include a focus on the ecological factors that support forest regeneration. This view recognizes that fire is part of a natural system that sets the stage for an entire ecosystem.

The shift is important because it implies a changing response to fire. To some, practices such as ground-based salvage logging are generally inconsistent with natural ecosystem restoration. On the other hand, forest managers maintain that quick action such as logging, tree planting and even disposal of logging debris can spur tree growth in places dedicated to timber production. Such practices are expensive, and logging provides a source of revenue to help offset the costs.

The need to resolve the debate brings some urgency. A century of fire suppression has led to dramatic changes, especially in dry forests, adds Hibbs. Trees occupy former grasslands, and forests that had an open understory have become dense. This thicker growth may benefit spotted owls and other forest dwellers, but the additional wood also provides the fuel for more intense fires.

“In a more open landscape, fires typically stayed low and large trees survived. Now when fires occur, they often kill everything. There’s no habitat left,” says Hibbs. Moreover, a return to historical fire regimes is not possible. “We’re in a whole new ballgame,” he adds.

Ongoing studies receive funding from sources that include the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies operating through the Joint Fire Science Program. They could help answer a variety of questions about post-fire management on a site-by-site basis: how many, if any, trees to cut; what harvesting techniques to use; whether and how to control competing vegetation; what, when and where to replant. These studies will improve the scientific basis for a range of management options, providing guidance to forest managers and researchers.

Forest Fire and Salvage Logging Research

An OSU Sampling

Fire severity

Fires do not burn evenly across the landscape. OSU Ph.D. student Jonathan Thompson is working with Tom Spies of the Forest Service to understand how weather, topography, vegetation and previous management activities such as salvage logging affect fire severity. Working with OSU Professor Klaus Puettmann, Ph.D. student Lori Kayes is investigating restoration and regeneration efforts following high severity fire in southwest Oregon (the Timbered Rock fire).

Natural regeneration

After a fire, trees and other plants may sprout profusely or not at all. OSU Senior Faculty Research Assistant Jeff Shatford is working with Hibbs to understand what controls the regeneration of shade-intolerant conifers in several burned areas.

Salvage logging and wildlife

Just as plants vary in their response to fire and logging, so do wildlife species. Forest Science Professor John Hayes, Research Assistant Tom Manning and graduate student Rebecca Cameron are studying the influence of salvage logging on habitat quality and abundance of birds, bats and small mammals in logged and unlogged forests. In a separate study that does not include a salvage treatment, Hayes and Michelle Cannon, graduate student working on a dual degree in Forest Science and Fisheries and Wildlife, are studying breeding birds in burned and adjacent unburned forests. Working with Robert Anthony in the same department, Darren Clark is working on spotted owls in burned areas of southwest Oregon (Biscuit and Timbered Rock), and Joe Fontaine is working on short- and long term response of birds and small mammals to salvage.

Vegetation and wildlife

Continuing their study of salvage logging, plant and tree growth, wildlife and fire risk are the team that produced the Science paper. Led by OSU Forest Science Professor Beverly Law, the team includes Donato and John Campbell in Forest Science, Joe Fontaine and Doug Robinson in Fisheries and Wildlife and Boone Kauffman of the Forest Service. In particular, they are interested in the effects of re-burn. What are the consequences of a second high severity fire within two decades of the first fire?

Riparian zones

Areas along rivers and streams provide important ecological habitats and may respond to fire in a different manner than surrounding uplands. Graduate student Jessica Halofsky is working with Hibbs to understand fire behavior in riparian zones.


Most shrubs come back after fire from root sprouts or the seed bank, but if they are damaged or killed by logging operations, will they recover? OSU graduate student Maria Lopez and Hibbs will begin a study this summer to answer that question. Shrubs provide an important food source and cover for wildlife, and some types of shrubs provide nutrients to growing trees.

Soil fungi

Soil fungi play a crucial role in forest ecosystems by recycling nutrients. Matt Trappe, a Ph.D. student in the Environmental Sciences Program, is studying the effects of prescribed burning on mycorrhizal fungi in an old-growth ponderosa pine forest in Crater Lake National Park. Trappe is working with Kermit Cromack, OSU professor emeritus, and Jim Trappe and Efren Cazares of the Department of Forest Science, to understand fungal activity after fire.