California wildfire fallout: Timber industry confronted by too many dead trees, warns of damaged forests- San Francisco Chronicle

Sawdust pours out of the Collins Pine lumber mill in Chester.
Max Whittaker/Special to The Chronicle

This is a really interesting article. I like the fact that the reporter spoke to a researcher at Oregon State University, and then circled back to the California FS employees working directly with the problem.


At ground level, three family-held timber companies say the increasingly ferocious wildfires are transforming their businesses.

California’s first million-acre wildfire, the August Complex in 2020, burned through about 40,000 acres of Crane Mills holdings in the Mendocino National Forest. About 42% of those burned acres experienced total losses among young and old trees alike, meaning they will have to be wholly reforested or risk being overtaken by shrubs, Chief Financial Officer Drew Crane said.

The 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fires burned about two-thirds of Big Creek Lumber’s 8,000 acres of mixed redwood forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Company President Janet McCrary Webb — whose family members lost 16 homes — said though redwood trees have thick bark built to withstand wildfires, she remains unsure how many will succumb to fire damage and die.

The Dixie Fire burned through about half of Collins Pine’s 95,300 acres around Lake Almanor in Plumas and Tehama counties. The company has found signs the fire was beneficial to some areas, but “about 30,000 acres is gone, black,” said Niel Fischer, Collins Pine western resources manager. More than 64,000 old-growth trees, the kind expected to survive wildfires, are probably dead, he said.

“I don’t want to use the word catastrophic, but it was catastrophic in terms of what it means to the business and what we have to do to recover,” Fischer said. “It shook us as foresters to our core.”

Wildfires are expected disturbances for California’s timber industry and are natural and restorative to these ecosystems. But the severity of fires in 2020 and 2021 is expected to result in significant destruction.

And they have to move fast to harvest the charred trees. Dead and dying trees can be milled for lumber, but it has to be done within about two years before they rot or become infested with insects.

Crane Mills, based in Corning on the western side of Tehama County, is running its mill at full tilt. But the company lost a key buyer of Ponderosa pine in March — there is simply too much wood.

“There aren’t enough loggers, there aren’t enough trucks, there aren’t enough foresters,” Crane said. “A lot of it will go to waste.”

Fischer said it’s not like losing one year’s tomato crop — rather Collins Pine has 10 or 15 years worth of resources “dead on the stump.”

“Dead trees do have value in the forest as long as you don’t have too many,” Fischer said. “We are careful to conserve trees that have died so they’re naturally incorporated into soil and become habitat … but there has to be balance.”

George Gentry, senior vice president of the California Forestry Association, said salvage logging operations can offer an economic boost in the immediate aftermath of a wildfire, but not enough to compensate for the long-term impact he expects will dampen timber harvests “for decades to come.” Gentry estimated 1.6 billion board feet burned this year — more than the 1.5 billion board feet produced each year across the state.

“They’ll do some initial salvage, they’ll do some initial rehabilitation, then they’ll have to pull back,” Gentry said. “If they reduce mill employment, if they reduce purchases, if they reduce anything they’d buy locally, that impact is really significant in rural economies.”

McCrary Webb with Big Creek Lumber said the volume of dead, dying and drying trees throughout Northern California forests should be a concern for all — and she hopes to see more solutions, like an increase in demand for wood biomass energy production.

“That’s one of the issues we see that really the whole state has to grapple with: How can you effectively deal with all this wood?” McCrary Webb said. “A lot of this wood, there’s no place to take it. Some were taking it to landfills. There’s no place for it to go.”

Collins Pine has been a pioneer in uneven-age harvesting, a way to manage commercial forests so they have a diversity of tree species and ages, as in natural ecosystems, Fischer said.

He said that while some portions of the land will rebound, they expect a lot of it will have to be wholly replanted. That “zeroes out the clock” for a forest meant to have both old and young trees, he said. Decades later, portions with same-age trees would be harvested at once — essentially clear-cut, a major shift away from their efforts to steward timber to more closely resemble natural forest ecosystems.

Crane said the August Complex fires were a “seminal event” for his family’s company, forcing it to rewrite its 100-year business plan. It too is facing a shift from uneven age reforestation practices to tree plantations, he said.

“You’re planting an even-aged forest — and I’m not sure how fire-resilient that is,” Crane said.

In 2020 alone, about 1 million acres changed from living forest to dead forest because of wildfires, said Joe Sherlock, regional silviculturist for the U.S. Forest Service in California. The Forest Service manages 8 million acres in California, roughly one-quarter of the state’s forestland.

Salvage timber sales are critical to funding reforestation and preventing dangerous fuel loads from building up and providing tinder for the next fire, Sherlock said. But the sheer scale of severe, tree-killing fires is adding pressure to an already overburdened system. There simply aren’t enough mills to process the trees or buyers to take the lumber.

“I worry about that a tremendous amount,” Sherlock said. “It will be expensive to gather that material up and create a hospitable environment for seedlings. I don’t know whose checkbook we can use.”

Brad Seaberg, who manages timber sales in California for the Forest Service, said this year’s fires are “testing the market” for whether the agency can find enough purchasers for the amount of lumber available on federal land. And a significant number of smaller-scale landowners affected by wildfires have also entered the timber market, he said.

“The scope of what’s going on is overwhelming,” Seaberg said.

But not everyone sees salvage logging as a boon to forest health or the best defense against the next fire.

Ernie Niemi, an Oregon forest economist who has studied timber practices for decades, said salvage logging on Forest Service land comes with steep costs, both financial and environmental. Niemi said dead trees hold greater benefit in the environment as crucial storage for climate-warming carbon dioxide and habitat for woodpeckers, insects and other species.

“Those dead and dying trees out on the landscape are not suddenly worthless from an ecological perspective,” Niemi said. “That big trunk still holds an awful lot of carbon.”

Sherlock said that is true for areas with a smattering of dead trees amid a rebounding forest. But he said large areas of mostly dead forests are less likely to naturally reseed and risk conversion from forest to shrubland. Harvesting dead or dying trees is necessary work, he said.

“You can imagine what it would be like to ignore all of those standing (dead) trees,” Sherlock said. “As the years go by, more and more of those trees will snap off or tip over, all on the ground. Can you imagine a forest with tons of tons of dry wood ready to burn in the next fire?”

An earlier version of this story misstated the volume of timber burned this year and produced annually on average in California. It is in billions of board feet.

18 thoughts on “California wildfire fallout: Timber industry confronted by too many dead trees, warns of damaged forests- San Francisco Chronicle”

  1. [We’re] “… facing a shift from uneven age reforestation practices to tree plantations … you’re planting an even-aged forest — and I’m not sure how fire-resilient that is.”

    He is certainly correct; plantations are NOT (fire) resilient. So, let’s rule out that singular option.

    “Decades later, portions with same-age trees would be harvested at once — essentially clear-cut, a major shift away from their efforts to steward timber to more closely resemble natural forest ecosystems.”

    Why would the clear-cutting of a renewed, even-aged forest be the only option in the future? Can’t they resume selective (i.e., ecological silviculture) harvesting and planting to regenerate a multi-aged forest again? Of course, it would take some time and patience.

    The worry that the burned forests will be replaced by shrubs focuses only on short-term economic timber values and ignores how nature itself uses successive ecological stages of seral development to recover over time if left to its own processes. But, if the soil and land are torn up by heavy machinery during aggressive harvesting, the remaining legacy dead and dying trees (future coarse, downed, woody debris) and any existing soil seed stocks will be destroyed, resulting in even more ecological damage. There is also the increased likelihood that non-native species will be introduced by intrusive logging activities.

    I agree with the Oregon forest economist, Ernie Niemi’s, comment, “dead trees hold a greater benefit in the environment as crucial storage for climate-warming carbon dioxide and habitat for woodpeckers, insects, and other species. Those dead and dying trees out on the landscape are not suddenly worthless from an ecological perspective.”

    • Michael.. not sure where you work, but sometimes nature just leaves shrubs… without “successive ecological stages” because the seed sources are gone.. too far away to seed in. Maybe give it a thousand years? But that doesn’t help wildlife who like tree habitat. I don’t know what you mean by “aggressive harvesting” but FS harvesting does leave legacy trees .. the point of designated skid trails is that there is plenty of area that is not run over. And conifers do tend to like bare mineral soil to become established. There are also requirements to reduce the chance of non-native species will be brought in.

      BTW.. that’s a straw person argument “suddenly worthless from an ecological perspective”. No one said that dead and dying trees are worthless from an ecological perspective. But they might not be as good wildlife habitat, for example, as living trees. And the ecological (some of all plants, critters and micros who may prefer different habitats) is not the only perspective. I’d like to think that a forest economics prof would understand that.

    • I just don’t trust the concept of ‘natural succession’, in a world so dominated by us humans. Hey, it doesn’t even work inside of California National Parks, like Yosemite and Sequoia. We have those ‘living laboratories’, and we’re learning that there is nothing ‘natural’ about the human-caused (and lightning-caused) firestorms that are burning today. Ignoring impacts on us humans is not an enlightened position.

      Have we seen any studies done on the kind of snag-thinning used in today’s modern Forest Service salvage projects? (Of course, no study has evaluated the project over multiple decades, along with a “control group”. Maybe it is time we started one?)

      • There have been a couple of studies on the Malheur National Forest – one older and one more recent – that included controls and different levels of snag retention. Morris JOhnson with the PNW FS Research Station (Seattle Fire Science Lab) has been working with FS and BLM ID Teams to install these types of studies as well – I think the oldest one was established after the 2015 fires in Washington. But Morris has worked in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

        • After just 6 years, I’m sure we cannot make any solid conclusions about what is best for recovery and rehabilitation of different levels of fire intensity. Much of the reasons for salvaging timber are for the reduction of dead fuels, for the next ‘fire return interval’. The aim is to reduce those fuels in advance of the next inevitable wildfire. Site-specific conditions should tell us what is needed for that particular piece of land.

  2. The magnitude of the problem is better understood by driving around and through one of the great fires of 2020 or 2021. The sight of miles of burned Dixie Fire or Caldor Fire timber and lost towns is overwhelming. Then drive through another burn Like the North Complex of 2020. I am not sure most of the public keeps the problem in perspective. Tons of carbon have been released into the atmosphere, creating health issues. Watersheds are being destroyed and as one of our “Camp ’70” group of foresters commented, “When the public can’t smell or see the smoke, the Western wildfire problem takes a back seat to other issues.”

    Our group agrees that more investment in mills and biomass facilities are needed. Another of our group, who owns a large sawmill said, “I would build a mill in the Sierra if I could have some supply certainty.”

    Current environmental restrictions, lawsuits and other red tape that restrict harvesting activities on National Forest lands are barriers to investment in wood products facilities.

    Maybe the new joint investment in wood processing facilities in Chelan County, Washington where County, Forest Service, and private investment in woods products facilities might be one solution. Local public buy-in occurred to make this happen. The public must be kept informed and involved in the wildfire and forest management issues. Otherwise, public attention won’t focus on wildfire until folks smell and see the smoke. Interest will again wane when the fires are out.

    Note: Our “Camp ’70” Group is a diverse group of Forestry classmates who attended UC Forestry Camp at Meadow Valley in 1970. All graduated from the University of California School of Forestry. We have been discussing the Western Wildfire problem since August.

  3. Michael, I don’t know where our live or work, but natural succession is not going to restock the megafires that CA experiences all too regularly. We’re losing conifer forest to brush land, and that doesn’t help anybody, whether you’re a fern feeler, Timber beast or a spotted owl.

  4. Indeed, seral transition/succession could take thousands of years. Or, conversely, given recent climatic changes, perhaps it may only take a couple of decades. The recovery may not be what we expect or want (“conifer forests -> brush land”). But, we must identify and try to protect refugia that possess genetic and structural components that may facilitate future recovery.

    Intensive and widespread “salvage” logging depletes and degrades the vital resources needed for the self-healing process. There are positive examples of natural recovery, like Yellowstone and Mt. St. Helens, etc., where we’ve been able to directly observe legacy organisms’ efficacy to rebound after significant disturbance (e.g., wildfires, volcanic eruptions, etc.). These examples demonstrate the critical value of having viable biological legacies (“lifeboats”) in place to ensure future (natural) recovery; they can give us a justifiable expectation that if left alone, disturbed areas do have the ability to revive without intrusive human intervention.

    There’s no doubt we’re witnessing the accelerated transformation of our planet. There will be many environmental problems to deal with soon, many (most?) of which are unfortunate consequences of historical decisions made by (well-intentioned?) human agents. But, our historical knowledge is temporally and experientially constrained, and we still have so much to learn.

    Undoubtedly, we’ll have to assign priorities using the three options mentioned in the above article – ADAPT – RESIST – DIRECT (I think the “adapt” option will probably be the most realistic option in most cases). And, with the expectation of hotter Mega-drought conditions, accompanying wildfires, and destructive pest outbreaks forecast for the future in the West, we certainly can expect some significant transformative events ahead. I only hope that we can better understand the dynamic ecological processes at work before we hinder or misdirect the recovery-transition process and make things even worse than we already have.

    This is one of the main reasons why I am terrified of proposed scientific answers/solutions that confidently espouse full-scale, planet-wide application of (still theoretical) geoengineering “fixes” to beneficially alter the climate; humans do not (yet) have sufficient knowledge and expertise to master and manipulate the often hidden forces and relations that operate in profoundly complex natural systems; (fire-impacted) forest systems are just such complex systems, and a myriad of living organisms, besides humans (and loggers, hehe 😉 depend on such systems to go through periodic Phoenix-like stages of destruction and renewal, whether we like it or not. Like my mother said, “if you pick at the scab, it’ll never heal;” extensive post-fire commercial logging is picking at the scab. 🙂

    • “Intensive and widespread “salvage” logging…”

      In the Forest Service, the trend has been to salvage about half of the burned acreages, with ample stream buffers. On my last salvage sale, 45% of the burned area was not salvaged. That certainly does not qualify as “Intensive and widespread”. Ample snags are always left (on USFS salvage projects).

      Of course, you can always provide a blanket opinion of all salvage projects, without looking at the actual project documents. That seems to be the way anti-salvage folks operate.

      Facts are important, and considered in the courts. That is another idea that serial litigators should consider, instead of false accusations and using private logging practices as reasons to shutdown Federal projects. That seems to be a big problem with today’s serial litigators. If they cannot win in court, they try to ‘win’ by telling potential donors the lies they love so much.

  5. The “not one stick” people also assume that salvage sales also remove healthy green trees (via clearcut) that survived the fire. While some survivors do finally succumb to bark beetles or cambium kill, to be cut, they need to meet the mortality guidelines. Of course, while some people only judge mortality by the colors of the needles, trees can die of multiple reasons, sometimes even at the same time. I have seen trees take years to die, from cambium kill. For me, they had to meet the guidelines before I put blue paint on them.

  6. Two thoughts. One is that presumably these private lands were managed as about intensively as practicable to prevent what happened, and it happened. That doesn’t bode well for the idea that we can “treat” national forests to get us out of this situation.

    The other is: “If they reduce mill employment, if they reduce purchases, if they reduce anything they’d buy locally, that impact is really significant in rural economies.” Yes, another downstream socio-economic effect of climate disruption. Are these folks working towards fixing that problem?

    Oh, and, “Crane said the August Complex fires were a “seminal event” for his family’s company, forcing it to rewrite its 100-year business plan.” Seems like that might be case for a few forest plans, too.

    • Again, with the unfair comparisons of private versus Forest Service. We have the forests that we have, and we can either complain about the past, or we can try to make a better future. Collins Pine tried something VERY different from other private timber companies, but they still get criticized for trying it. Were there spotted owls and goshawks nesting on their lands? If so, that should validate some of their practices.

      Yes, I am kind of sad that my favorite Ranger District burned up in the Caldor Fire, but that doesn’t mean the projects of the last 30 years were bad. We’ve also seen plenty of unmanaged lands fry to a crisp, too. The solution is not in preserving everything. The solution is also not hand-felling and hand-piling “underbrush”, either. It is oh-so-clear that all types of forests burned well in the Caldor and Dixie Fires. Even the ones that were non-commercially treated or strictly-preserved.

  7. The fires burning every year in our western forests are horrific. I don’t care how you look at it the lost of old growth forests and habitat is irreparable. We should be doing everything we can to mitigate these fires. I don’t believe we have the luxury of waiting for global warming to be solved. I don’t believe just blaming these fires on past practices very helpful either. We have had decades to learn from and study these fires. We should now be able to move forward with knowledge on how to control and manage for these fires. But we do seem to be incredibly slow learners. We should be using every tool available to us combat these fires.
    I believe we should also acknowledge the economic and social value of harvesting burnt timber along with its ecological value when not harvested. It would not be difficult to compare areas that were burnt decades ago that were salvage with those areas that were not salvaged.
    It is my on the ground experience, and I don’t know how many times it has been said, that on federal lands only a very small percentage of these fires are ever salvage harvested.

    • “…I don’t know how many times it has been said, that on federal lands only a very small percentage of these fires are ever salvage harvested.”

      A lie doesn’t become truth by saying it over and over again. In places where dead timber can be economically-extracted, while also leaving adequate snags, AND following all the current rules, laws and policies, salvage projects are planned, and often executed. That is pretty much it, in a nutshell. Modern USFS salvage projects in California have been making it through the Appeals Courts (including the 9th Circuit Court!) You may not agree with what the projects do, or don’t do but, those are the constraints upon the Agency. The new tools in the Infrastructure Bill will take time to figure out.

      You can always ‘hope and pray’ for new rules, laws and policies but, the ‘what-ifs’ mean very little in today’s reality.

    • Bob: I agree with everything you are saying, but I think this has zero to do with “global warming.” From my perspective, that is just a feeble — and very expensive — excuse that has been invented by the environmental industry to explain the total failure of their promised vision of 400-year old forests, joyous grandchildren, and flocks of spotted owls and marbled murrelets. If only we would stop logging. And discover the wonder of snag-based “ecological integrity,” whatever that might mean. You know, “science.”

      On the other hand, we already know how to deal with these events, if we are serious about doing so. The “Six-Year-Jinx” of 1933, 1939, 1945 and 1951 clearly demonstrated the danger of leaving snags in the environment, and the near-certainty of “reburns” until they were gone, unless removed by other methods. In 1948 Oregon voters approved a constitutional amendment creating a $12 million bond to reforest the Tillamook Burn. By 1952 more than eight billion board feet of snags had been harvested — much during 1941-1945 in national support of WW II — systematic snag-free corridors had been created, and the planting of millions of trees and aerial seeding of thousands of acres had begun in earnest. In 1973 the “Tillamook State Forest” was created from the former Burn. There have been no major fires in the area during the past 70 years.

      In 1969 NEPA was created by Congress while on the exact same day in the exact same town, the Environmental Law Institute was created. In 1973 the Endangered Species Act was altered to include “critical habitat.” In 1980 the Equal Access to Justice Act was adopted. In 1987 our public forests began burning in a series of deadly and horrific wildfires that have continued to this time. We know how to fix this problem — foresters and forest scientists in the 1940s and 1950s showed us how. We just don’t have the resolve.


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