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Timber Salvage After 2014 Wildfires Begins In Fits And Starts

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network

Wildfires scorched nearly 1.5 million acres in Oregon, Washington and Idaho this year. And with increased demand for timber from lumber mills, there is a growing market for scorched trees.

Time is of the essence in post-fire salvage. Fungus, bugs and rot degrade dead trees almost immediately explained Darin Cramer, who manages timber sales for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

"If you do not salvage those trees within a relatively short period of time, they quickly start losing value,” he said. “They've already lost value just by being burned. And the longer they sit out there, the more the value goes down."

Cramer said different types of landowners move at different speeds post-fire. Private timberland owners salvage the fastest. In fact in southern Oregon, one company has already finished logging trees that burned in June.

Cramer said at the state level, Washington has sketched out two salvage timber sales following summer 2014 fires. Idaho's Department of Lands is likewise preparing an auction of charred trees in the north-central part of the state.

Federal agencies face more stringent environmental requirements and the most outside scrutiny. It will take at least a year for the U.S. Forest Service to nail down the details to log burned trees southeast of Lewiston, Idaho.

"It is very difficult to find a balance that meets the needs of all interested parties, but we believe we have developed a sound approach,” said Nez Perce National Forest District Ranger Joe Hudson in a statement about the proposed Johnson Bar Fire Salvage Project.

State lands agencies typically focus more on maximizing revenue, but still apply many screens that winnow how much burned timber is put up for sale. Cramer said this summer's Carlton Complex wildfire burned about 17,000 acres of forested Washington DNR land. Only 1,200 acres of that will be offered for post-fire salvage though, because of environmental, logistical and desirability issues.

"The market has improved over the last few years," Cramer said in regard to demand for logs. "We recently had a tour for purchasers that might be interested and had good attendance at both sites."

The two proposed DNR salvage sales involve the Carlton Complex wildfire in Okanogan County and Snag Canyon Fire near Ellensburg, Washington.

The U.S. Forest Service is readying one small salvage sale within the boundaries of the sprawling Carlton Complex Fire. Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest resources and planning officer Stuart Woolley said his agency will require the 250 acre parcel "to be logged over snow or frozen ground" to minimize soil disturbance.

The Carlton Complex Fire burned more than 256,000 acres combined of private, state and federal land.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.