Forest Health:
Western Federal Lands: Forest Fire & Forest Health


The federal forests in the western United States have been subject to numerous acts of nature which have left forests ravaged by insects, disease, blowdown (high storm winds) and fire. A decade-long drought in the region is increasing the risk of fire, while crippling the overall health of the forest. In the past, federal foresters have used timber salvage sales to clean up dead and dying timber and to halt the spread of insects and disease.

Over the last five years, a number of lawsuits and new federal regulations have stymied the efforts of professional forest scientists to enhance and restore forest health. As a result, in 1996 nearly four million acres of federal land burned and was left to rot amidst legal and bureaucratic debate. Recent testimony by the Chief of the Forest Service indicates the agency will have continued difficulty salvaging dead and dying timber, contributing to the potential destruction of adjacent healthy forests and loss of federal timber sale receipts.


  • 1. Infestation has caused damage and destruction to more than 11 million acres of western federal forests.
  • 2. Decade-long drought has contributed to high fire risk, resulting in nearly 4 million acres of forest fire in 1996 alone.
  • 3. The number of trees per acre has dramatically increased from as few as 20 trees/acre to more than 700 trees/acre today, causing unhealthy overcrowding and greater forest fire hazards in drought conditions.
  • 4. Current well-intentioned but misguided regulations require exhaustive environmental documentation, delaying harvests of diseased or burned timber indefinitely. As such, usable salvage timber wastefully rots away, resulting in lost government income from potential sales and economic privation for local communities.
  • 5. Carbon emissions from burned, rotting timber is released into the atmosphere contributing to the “green house effect” and other environmental problems.


Natural Causes: Insects, Disease, Drought and Blowdown

The health of our federal forests in the West is threatened by drought, insects, disease aging tree stands and the inevitable forest fires that follow. In 1991 alone, more than 11.3 million acres of timbered national forests in 11 western states were infested with Mountain Pine Beetles or Western Spruce Bud Worms. The total wood fiber killed or damaged that year by insects could have built the equivalent of 13 million average-sized homes!

In addition, hurricane force winds of 70-100 mph destroy large stands of trees in a matter of hours. If not properly cleared, downed timber from these storms becomes a perfect environment for insects and disease to take hold and spread to adjacent healthy forests.

Forest Management: Fire Prevention and Suppression

For nearly 80 years, federal foresters have worked successfully to curb the number of annual forest fires. During the 1930’s, between 40-50 million acres burned each year; over the past five years, an average of 3.1 million acres have been lost to fire. However, the composition of the federal forests is evolving to a new mix of tree species. Traditional species such as Ponderosa Pine and other long-needle (fire resistant) varieties are being replaced by Lodgepole Pine, Douglas Fir and other short-needle species (less fire resistant.)

Additionally, stand density (number of trees per acre) has increased from as few as 20 trees per acre in pre-settlement times (pre-1800’s) to more than 700 trees per acre today. This overcrowding factor, mixed with the effects of drought and infestation, creates increased potential for fire.

Last year in Oregon and Washington, more than 248,000 acres of Forest Service land burned at a cost to the taxpayer of $110 million. On a per acre basis, these fires cost $444 per acre to fight. Applied across all federal lands burned in 1996, the government spent more than $1.1 billion on fire suppression alone! These costs do not include lost resource value or the costs to rehabilitate burned areas. Ironically, the costs of fire rehabilitation in many forests equals the cost of fire suppression. If the Forest Service could manage our forests to control stand density, insects and disease on all acres, it would greatly reduce the risk of catastrophic fire and save the taxpayers millions of dollars in fire suppression costs.

Forest Management: Diseased and Destroyed Timber Salvage

According to a recent Government Accounting Office report, the Forest Service estimates about 13 billion board feet of salvage timber remain unharvested-enough to build nearly 960,000 average-sized homes. (This assumes the wood can be salvaged before its value as structural building materials is lost.)

If the Forest Service could salvage this wood, the government could receive more than $1.3 billion in timber sale receipts. State and county governments could expect to receive $325 million.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal land managers to complete exhaustive environmental documentation each time they propose to harvest timber, regardless of the health of the forest. In 1993, the Forest Service modified its administrative appeal rules to ensure that anyone with concerns can appeal any decision to implement almost any project on the national forest. These rules forbid the agency from implementing the projects during a 135-day period while regional foresters consider the appeal. Preservation groups have used the appeal process to delay and stop timber sales of any type, including salvage.

Under past administrative appeal regulations, Regional Foresters could exempt salvage sales from appeal. Those opposing the salvage sale could either proceed directly to court or accept the decision. Under the new rules, no project can be exempted from appeal, although some extra-ordinary emergencies allow the Chief of the Forest Service to deny a stay while the appeal is decided.

In the case of sales involving tree species that rot quickly, the NEPA process combined with the new appeal process makes it highly unlikely that salvage action can be taken before damaged and diseased wood has lost all commercial value. Since the Forest Service has not developed a means to predict where forest health problems or fires will occur, the agency cannot hope to begin the NEPA documentation process early enough to capture the value of dying forests.

In the last two decades, Congress and various administrations have developed a myriad of conflicting laws and regulations that have complicated efforts to use modern management practices to maintain and improve the health of our forests. Requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) present the largest challenges. In the western federal forests, managers are struggling with protection of endangered species including the spotted owl and marbled murrelet, sensitive species such as the goshawk, and any number of endangered salmon and trout listings. The ESA gives two agencies veto power over any proposed timber sale, whether it is to reduce stand density or to salvage dead and dying trees.

The consultation process required by the ESA on some sales has taken up to three years to complete; seldom has the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service been able to complete consultation in less than one year, despite ESA regulation requiring no more than 90 days for this process. In the case of fire salvage sales proposed in the past two years, none have been cleared for sale before the wood lost most if not all of its commercial value.


  • A) Modification of both NEPA and the Administrative Appeals Process to ensure prompt salvage of timber lost to fire, blowdown, insects, disease and other natural causes. This will allow the federal government to realize timber revenues from otherwise useless acreage while halting the spread of disease and infestation to adjacent healthy forests.
  • B) Implementation of forest health preventative planning and management policies to allow for scientific evaluation and maintenance of forest health.
  • C) Modification of ESA to expedite the consultation process.

Source: Northwest Forest Resource Council, April 1997