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Siskiyou Mountain Range

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The Chetco Bar Fire: Natural Beauty, Industrial Devastation & the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project

The Chetco River near Redwood Bar

The Chetco River is one of the wildest, most spectacular and most diverse rivers in the West. In fact, 66% of the Chetco River watershed flows through remote wilderness and roadless backcountry. The fisheries and water quality of the Chetco River are fed by the countless wild streams flowing through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the surrounding wildlands. The fisheries of the Chetco River are among the most important on the Oregon Coast and they are currently threatened by post-fire logging on both private and federal land. 

In contrast to much of the river basin, the lower Chetco River near Brookings, Oregon is far from pristine. In many locations, private timber interests and federal land managers have scalped whole mountainsides, and in some cases, whole watersheds of old-growth timber. The result has been high road densities, vast plantation forests, and simplified ecosystems highly susceptible to stand-replacing fire. The lower Chetco River once contained intact, old forests of coastal Douglas fir, Port Orford-cedar and western hemlock. Portions of the watershed support the northern-most stands of coastal redwood, much of which was logged off decades ago; however, a few remnant stands of redwood forest still remain in the Chetco Watershed. 

The Chetco Bar Fire mosaic in the lower Chetco River canyon.

This past summer the Chetco Bar Fire burned throughout the Chetco River canyon from deep in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness to within five miles of Brookings, Oregon. The fire burned in a diverse fire mosaic, burning slowly and at relatively low severity for the first month and a half of the fire. On August 15, 2017, under the influence of strong “Chetco Effect” winds and extremely low relative humidity, the fire surged to the west, quickly burning roughly 95,000 acres in one week of extreme fire weather. Under these conditions the fire burned through plantation stands, old-growth forests and snag fields from the 2002 Biscuit Fire. The winds and low relatively humidity largely overrode fuel loading as the main driver of fire severity in the Chetco Bar Fire. As the fire approached the coastal portions of the watershed stand structure did influence fire severity to some degree, and plantation stands did contribute to the level of mortality sustained during the Chetco Bar Fire. At the same time, the canyon’s remnant old stands and scattered old trees sustained less mortality than the surrounding plantation stands.

Fire severity was highest on the ridges and mid-slope, where the fire could build some steam and was most influenced by wind and solar radiation. In the river canyon fire severity was reduced by natural vegetative conditions, higher levels of humidity and less exposure to heavy winds. Although portions of the lower Chetco River canyon burned hot, other portions burned at low to moderate severity, maintaining canopy conditions and burning understory fuel.  

The Chetco River Watershed Assessment documents increased surface erosion rates, sedimentation and water quality impacts associated with heavy industrial logging and road building in the river’s lower reach. Tributary streams such as Basin Creek, Eagle Creek, the Mineral Hill Fork, and Quail Prairie Creek have been heavily logged and heavily impacted by industrial land management practices. These watersheds are now being targeted for post-fire logging by the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in the 13,626-acre Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project. 

A natural stand proposed for post-fire logging by the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest near Packer’s Cabin on Long Ridge. Fire
severity in the area was mixed, with some stands burned off and others maintaining significant levels of canopy.

Many people are claiming that because the lands targeted for post-fire logging are “matrix lands” designated for commercial logging, the project’s impact will be reduced. Yet, the scale of logging and plantation development proposed will significantly alter forest structure, increase fuel loading, reduce fire resilience, impact the natural fire regeneration process, and degrade water quality in the Wild & Scenic Chetco River. 

Others are also claiming the impacts will be minimized because the project will log only plantation stands and forests that burned at high severity. These claims are only partially true. It is true that large areas of plantation forest did burn on federal land, but recent GIS analysis shows that only 33% of the acres proposed for post-fire logging have been previously logged. It is also true that fire severity in these stands is variable, with some stands totally torching and others burning in a mixed-severity fire mosaic. Many of the plantation stands benefited greatly from the Chetco Bar Fire, which punched holes in the unnaturally uniform stands, reduced stand density and created a more diverse mosaic from the once evenly spaced and even-aged plantation stands. 

Vulcan Peak in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness at sunset with the Chetco Bar Fire mosaic in the foreground. The Forest Service has proposed to conduct post-fire logging on the burned ridges directly adjacent to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness boundary. The ridges burned at mixed severity, creating heterogeneity and diverse stand conditions. The agency is responding by implementing clearcut, post-fire logging, a position that directly contradicts the supposed “restorative” approach currently promoted by the agency. Creating more plantation stands will only further degrade habitat values and increase future fuel loads. 

Natural, unmanaged stands and some stands that were previously selectively logged are also proposed for post-fire logging. The Forest Service is proposing to log all stands located within “matrix” lands that sustained between 50% and 100% mortality in the Chetco Bar Fire. This means that some stands that survived the fire with only 50% mortality will be logged, contradicting the claim that only severely burned stands will be harvested. 

The beautiful waters of the lower Chetco River.

This last week Klamath Forest Alliance and the Siskiyou Crest Blog visited the lower Chetco River. What we found was a diverse fire mosaic, incredible natural regeneration, and some of the most beautiful water in the country. We observed a fire-adapted canyon of great beauty, but we also found devastation; not from the fire itself, but from the post-fire logging currently being implemented by private timber interests. The cumulative impact of post-fire clearcut logging on both private and federal land will leave the lower Chetco River canyon in a degraded state for a very long time. 

Surface erosion and sedimentation will significantly increase due to soil disturbance and vegetation loss associated with logging. Stream shade from both standing snags and living green trees will be reduced, impacting stream temperatures. The effects of clearcut logging will increase forest fragmentation and impact forest connectivity. Large old snags and living trees will be removed, reducing forest complexity and coarse woody debris recruitment. Slopes will be cleared, the fire mosaic degraded and vast interconnected areas converted into new tree plantations. The logging has severe impacts, but the plantation development will also degrade habitat conditions for many, many years to come. 

Post-fire logging by the South Coast Lumber Company in the Chetco Bar Fire. The company is liquidating thousands of acres, including fire killed trees and live trees, even in riparian areas. 

Plantation stands are broadly acknowledged as biological deserts with little stand complexity or habitat value. They are also the most flammable portions of the landscape. If the Forest Service moves forward with the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project, they will be creating the forest health and fuel problems of the future. 

The lower Chetco River is currently a mixture of extreme beauty and industrial devastation. We should demand more for this important watershed. Stop the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project! 

The Chetco Bar Fire 
The Natural Beauty…
The Chetco Bar Fire mosaic along the lower Chetco River.
Not only do coast redwood trees have fire-resistant bark, but they also have the ability to re-sprout from various locations throughout their trunk and limbs, as well as from the base of the tree following fire. This burned coast redwood is producing “epicormic” sprouts along its trunk and limbs at Little Redwood Campground on the lower Chetco River. The stand burned at relatively high severity, scorching off much of the forest canopy. Almost all of the burned redwoods are sprouting back, some with 2 foot sprouts already! Previously overshadowed by old-growth fir trees, these redwoods will have a strong competitive advantage over other conifer species regenerating from seed on site. The Chetco Bar Fire could encourage dominance by redwoods in the post-fire environment at Little Redwood Campground.
The Industrial Devastation…
The current clear-cut, post-fire logging on private land in the Chetco River watershed will increase the cumulative impact from proposed post-fire logging on adjacent Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest lands.
The Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project
The current Forest Service proposals shows potential post-fire logging units in orange-yellow.
A map depicting proposed post-fire logging and nearby land management designations. The proposed post-fire logging units in the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project are depicted in pink and orange. Also notice the amount of Northern spotted owl and Marbled Murrlet habitat that would be impacted. The State of Oregon just uplisted the Marbled Murrlet to “endangered” due to continuing population declines. Map created by Justin Augustine at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Support KFA and our work on the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project. here