Salvaging What, Exactly?


Salvage Logging and Its Ecological Consequences . Lindenmayer, D. B., P. J. Burton, and J. F. Franklin . 2008 . Island Press , Washington , D.C. 243 (xvi + 227) pp. $65.00 (hardcover) . ISBN 978-1-59726-403-7 .

“This place is sure due for a wildfire,” was a recurring thought I had during the summers I spent clearing trail through dense, century-old lodgepole pine. At the time, I was an aspiring land manager just beginning to learn the ecological role of disturbance. A decade later, after a lot more academic training concerning the central role of fire in forest ecosystems, I returned to that Montana wilderness to find that it had indeed burned, and pretty severely, too. I was surprised by my reaction. It was visceral and irrational. Although I certainly knew better, all I saw was death and loss, a skeleton forest. Considering that I was only a fair-weather friend to the area, I expect my feelings were trivial compared with those who live and work in this landscape full time. So it seems perfectly understandable to me that the knee-jerk reaction to a severe wildfire is often to seek some benefit from within the loss—to salvage something.

Emotional reactions, like mine, are what the authors of Salvage Logging and Its Ecological Consequences are up against as they lay out an argument against indiscriminate postdisturbance timber harvest. With few exceptions, logging dead trees has always been the management response to disturbance, whether it comes as fire, ice, insects, or wind. Often salvage has been justified on ecological grounds: to expedite recovery, to ensure regeneration, and to reduce fire risk. So, when the authors assert that harvesting live, “green trees” typically has less ecological impact than harvesting dead trees, they are bucking some seriously entrenched conventional wisdom. I think this book can help managers and policy makers move past the conventional wisdom, the rhetoric, and the emotion to see that there is no ecological justification for salvage logging. Whether there are economic or other justifications is another matter entirely and is a topic outside the purview of this book.

In organizing their book, the authors made two decisions that will ensure that it is read and referenced widely. First, they kept it short. The real meat of the book is just over 150 pages, and is chock full of photos and figures. With more than a century of combined experience in forestry research, Lindenmayer, Burton and Franklin could have easily produced a tome, so I commend them for choosing brevity. Second, they chose not to create an edited volume, but instead wrote one cohesive argument, where each chapter builds on the chapter before, eventually culminating in a series of evidence-based management and policy recommendations.

They begin with a primer on forest ecology, emphasizing the critical role of disturbance and natural recovery in providing landscape-scale diversity. This is not, nor does it claim to be, a thorough treatment of the topic—instead it is a requisite foundation in their case. Next, they review the published evidence documenting the ways in which salvage logging has ecological impacts distinct from logging of green trees. As they point out, some distinctions arise from a postdisturbance crisis mindset, which is frequently more permissive than during calmer times. Examples include permitting larger cut blocks, removing more volume, and harvesting in areas that would otherwise be unavailable to logging (i.e., roadless areas). Other distinctions relate to the loss of unique postdisturbance biological legacies and the related impacts of these losses on a range of organisms. Finally, there are the distinctions that relate to ecological function and the sensitive condition of the postdisturbance environment, such as increased vulnerability to soil erosion and compaction. After the general overview of potential ecological consequences, the authors introduce a series of case studies in postdisturbance management, broken down by disturbance type: fire, insect, wind, and volcanoes. In this chapter, and throughout the book, the authors lean heavily on large, infrequent disturbances like the massive and ongoing bark beetle outbreak in British Columbia and the 2002 Biscuit fire. Although I am sure that this simply reflects the fact that large events have garnered relatively more research dollars, I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on the smaller, more common disturbance events that managers are more likely to be faced with. Nonetheless, the case studies offer a fascinating trip to large forest disturbances around the globe and are a reminder that some of the largest salvage operations have come in the wake of very rare events such as the 1938 Hurricane in New England, and the 1988 eruption of Mount St. Helens in the Pacific Northwest.

The last two chapters—“Reducing the ecological impacts of salvage logging” and “Toward Better Management of Naturally Disturbed Forests”—are the book's most valuable. By this point, the authors have built a mountain of empirical evidence, which lends authority to their recommendations. They urge against reactionary management, “where action is a substitute for thought.” Instead, they suggest that preemptive forest planning should determine the response to disturbance. They acknowledge that economic considerations may alter management timelines—expediting harvest schedules so that the timber retains its value—but they suggest that salvage operations be restricted to areas previously slated for green-tree harvesting. In addition, they emphasize that environment safeguards—such as riparian buffers, snag retention, landscape connectivity, and soil protection—are fundamental considerations for responsible harvest operations, salvage or otherwise. Finally, after the obligatory plea for more research funding, they conclude with a call for new language. The word salvage, they note, has connotations that belie its effects.

There must be dozens of books describing the ecological consequences of green-tree logging, but never before has postdisturbance “salvage” logging been subject to an exhaustive review. Given the emotional reactions to disturbance, the persistent controversy, and misconceptions surrounding the practice, this book is long overdue.