Friday, March 23, 2018

Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project: Quail Prairie Creek Units

Quail Prairie Creek is a beautiful tributary stream in the South Fork Chetco River watershed. The stream contains large swaths of old forest, unique geologic diversity and high water quality. These values are threatened by post-fire logging proposed by the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

Recently Klamath Forest Alliance and the Siskiyou Crest Blog visited the Chetco Bar Fire area to explore the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest's proposed Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project. The Forest Service has proposed 13,626 acres of post-fire, clearcut logging and plantation development in the lower Chetco River watershed. 

Much of the project proposes to log fire-affected, old-growth forests and intact native ecosystems. Because the project is currently proposed in "matrix" land designated for logging in the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, some have assumed that the proposed logging treatments are located in previously logged plantation stands — this is simply not true. In fact, according to the 1996 Chetco River Watershed Analysis, the Forest Service admits that due to "remote, unroaded stands in the matrix," much of the area remains relatively intact.  Recent GIS analysis corroborates these findings, showing that about 9,000 acres of the 13,626 acres proposed for post-fire logging have never been logged before. In other words, roughly two-thirds of the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project would occur in forests that have never been logged.

The proposal includes massive, interconnected, post-fire logging units that extend across entire watersheds. These units would clearcut both fire-killed snags and living, green trees the Forest Service predicts will die in 3-5 yrs. The agency may also propose new road construction to access the "remote, unroaded stands in the matrix." 

There is no ecological justification for post-fire logging. The cumulative impact of post-fire logging on both public and private industrial forest land in the lower Chetco River Watershed would be severe and have significant implications for the region's incredible water quality and fisheries habitat. 
The clearcut forest in the lower portions of the photo have been logged recently by the South Coast Timber Company following the Chetco Bar Fire. Now, imagine the cumulative impact of these clearcuts sprawling across over 13,000 acres of public land in the Chetco River watershed if the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project is implemented.

On our last trip to the lower Chetco River we focused our attention on Quail Prairie Creek, a large, beautiful and important tributary stream supporting both coho salmon and native steelhead fisheries. Quail Prairie Creek contributes cold, clear water into the mainstem of the Chetco River, benefiting its thriving fisheries. 

Quail Prairie Creek begins near the Kalmiopsis Wilderness boundary at Quail Prairie Mountain and meets the South Fork of the Chetco River about a mile from the mainstem. The Quail Prairie Creek watershed is beautiful, diverse, and currently contains many intact ecosystems; it has also been targeted for extensive post-fire logging in the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project.

Day 1: Long Ridge to Quail Prairie Mountain

On our first day we hiked up the snowy 1917 road, leading up Long Ridge to the summit of Quail Prairie Mountain. The hike began in dense, second growth forest that burned at low severity in the Chetco Bar Fire. 

As we walked higher on the ridge we entered Long Ridge Prairie, now a series of small grassy openings and a remnant of the once extensive coastal prairie surrounding Packer's Cabin. Packer's Cabin was built in the 1930s in a large contiguous swath of meadow sprawling across the top of Long Ridge at the headwaters of Quail Prairie Creek.

This photograph depicts conditions on Long Ridge in 1934. Long Ridge Prairie was historically significantly larger than it is today, but the mosaic on Quail Prairie Mountain, in the background of the photo, is very similar to the current condition after the Chetco Bar Fire. 


Roughly the same photo location following the Chetco Bar Fire. Although the prairie is significantly reduced since 1934, the fire mosaic on Quail Prairie Mountain will regenerate hardwood stands, chaparral and non-forest habitats in a similar pattern as existed in 1934, and the Chetco Bar's high severity fire surrounding the old prairie will help restore meadow habitat.


These vast meadows, once common on the lower ridges of the Chetco River, were historically maintained through lightning ignitions and the stewardship of the Chetco Tribe. Indigenous land managers utilized cultural burning practices and harvesting methods to manage the upland prairies of the Coast Range. With the genocide of the indigenous people, their violent removal, the end of their cultural land management, and the systematic suppression of wildfire, these coastal prairies quickly grew mature Douglas fir forests and had become a fraction of their former extent. Long Ridge Prairie had been greatly reduced through conifer encroachment, having mostly filled in before the Chetco Bar Fire.

The Chetco Bar Fire burned through these mature forests at high severity, triggering herbaceous growth in the former prairie soils. 
Much of the former prairie could turn back into herbaceous prairie habitat, beneath a forest of fire-killed snags. The Chetco Bar Fire will naturally encourage restoration of the former coastal prairie, while providing important wildlife habitat in the form of large diameter snags. The combination of snags and coastal prairie provides important and highly complex habitat for local deer, elk, rodents, small mammals, raptors, song birds, woodpeckers, cavity nesting wildlife, native pollinators and black bear.
High quality wildlife snags like these will be logged in the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project in the area around Packer's Cabin and Long Ridge.

This transition from forest to prairie will be especially rich in biodiversity and provides an opportunity to promote the restoration of coastal prairie habitat, utilizing the natural fire process. 

Historically, a cycle of repeated fire, both wildfire and indigenous burning, created and maintained Long Ridge Prairie. Today, prescribed fire and prescribed natural fire could maintain the meadow in a productive condition, while clearing back fuel deposited by fire killed trees, promoting herbaceous growth, creating niche habitat for local deer and elk, and providing cultural food sources and resources to the local tribal community. Such an approach would provide an opportunity to explore the development and maintenance of coastal prairie habitats from forest to grassland, using natural process and indigenous land management techniques. Going forward, it would allow us to study "prairie restoration" techniques using prescribed fire and prescribed natural fire rather than more intensive, industrial means.

Cultural burning regimes, indigenous harvesting practices, native plant restoration and prescribed natural fire are the most appropriate and effective forms of meadow restoration for this landscape. The approach would restore function and process to the meadow system by recreating the natural disturbance regime that originally led to prairie development.
The snag forest habitat at the edge of the clearing is proposed for post-fire, clearcut logging in the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project.

Unfortunately, the Forest Service has proposed clearcut, post-fire logging in the area around Packer's Cabin and Long Ridge Prairie. Post-fire logging will not mimic natural ecosystem process or promote scenic values important at Packer's Cabin and Long Ridge Prairie. In fact, the ground disturbance and heavy equipment use inherent to commercial, post-fire logging will promote the spread of noxious weeds and impact existing native plant communities, hindering the restoration of native prairie habitat. Wildlife snags will be removed, impacting song birds, woodpeckers and cavity nesting wildlife that are currently extremely active in the burn area. The scenic and recreational qualities of Packer's Cabin will also be badly degraded if post-fire logging occurs.

Post-fire, clearcut logging is neither necessary or appropriate given the location and the ecological values present in the area. All post-fire logging units adjacent to Long Ridge Prairie should be canceled. Long Ridge Prairie should be declared a scientific study site, where the agency researches the rich biodiversity of the forest to prairie transition, the restoration of coastal prairie habitats, and indigenous cultural practices with the use of prescribed fire and natural ignitions. 
Packers Cabin
Packer's Cabin is a high value recreation site and popular Forest Service rental. A recreational cabin in a massive stumpfield, is unlikely to remain popular and attractive to visitors in the Brookings and Chetco River area after post- fire logging is conducted. The cabin has been renovated by the Forest Service as a recreation site and the public has invested significant funds in renovating the historic cabin as a recreational site. The historic value of the cabin is important and the recreational value is essentially unrivaled on Forest Service land in the lower Chetco River watershed. Those values would be better maintained by retaining a natural setting and allowing repeated fire to restore historic habitat and prairie conditions. 

After a long visit at Packer's Cabin, we continued up the road, through fire-affected old-growth forest and hardwood stands on the western face of Quail Prairie Mountain. The fire burned through the area in a low to moderate-severity fire mosaic. Patches of forest and woodland were scorched in the fire, while other portions underburned or did not burn at all. The fire mosaic was ecologically beneficial and characteristic. Despite the Chetco Effect winds pushing the fire west, much of the Quail Prairie Creek watershed burned at low to moderate severity. 
Ancient, fire-affected forest proposed for clearcut logging in the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project. This forest is located just below a saddle on the ridgeline between Long Ridge Meadows and Quail Prairie Mountain. Notice how small I am compared to these very large trees slated for logging.

As we continued up the slope, views across Quail Prairie Creek and the South Fork Chetco River extended to the snow covered summit of Vulcan Peak, a massive white summit towering above dark forests and fire-killed snags. The upper portion of Quail Prairie Creek consisted of scattered conifers, large tanoak stands, harsh serpentine soils and patches of chaparral. 

Much of this area burned at high severity, creating a vast fuelbreak that will slow or stop future fires due to a lack of available fuel. The burn will also reset the biological clock and respond with a vibrant, highly complex, early-seral ecosystem of resprouting shrubs, hardwoods and snags. Wildflowers will no doubt bloom in abundance across these slopes once the snow melts, creating diversity and brilliance long unseen in this area before the Chetco Bar Fire. 

Despite minimal timber volume, and both high ecological and recreational values in the area, the Forest Service has proposed vast post-fire clearcuts and replanting with plantation-like stands. The loss of biodiversity associated with post-fire logging and the development of ecologically sterile tree plantations is staggering and unacceptable in one of the most ecologically diverse portions of the North American continent. 
A view towards Vulcan Peak and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area from near the summit of Quail Prairie Mountain. The snow covered ridge in the foreground is the Kalmiopsis Wilderness boundary. The Forest Service is proposing to clearcut straight to the Kalmiposis Wilderness boundary for over four contiguous miles. This ridgeline is only one small piece of the proposed clearcut along the wilderness boundary. The Wilderness boundary units must all be canceled to protect wilderness values, scenic values, and to allow for healthy, natural fire regeneration.

At the summit of Quail Prairie Mountain we gazed across the wild, rugged and remote ridges of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area and down the long forested canyon of Quail Prairie Creek. To the west, framed by the canyon of the Chetco River, the Pacific Ocean extends across the horizon. The forests and ridges of the Coast Range meet the water and the waves of the open ocean at the Brookings Harbor, where the clear blue Chetco River flows into the sea. 

The Chetco Bar Fire surrounds us at Quail Prairie Mountain, creating a characteristic and seemingly random mosaic of black and green. Given the Chetco Effect Winds, this pattern is characteristic of fires in the Chetco region. With Chetco Effect Winds, fires have likely burned like this for millennia, and probably always will. The Chetco Bar Fire burned across the region, largely reinforcing the legacy of fire on this  fire-adapted landscape. The Chetco Effect Winds have always whipped across this landscape, spreading flames into otherwise unburnable coastal habitats and sculpting the mosaic in unique and unimaginable ways. The pyro-diversity of this landscape has returned. In the years following this fire, the brushfields, snag forests, broken timber, vast tanoak stands and obvious influence of fire on the historic landscape will attest to this fact. 

The Chetco Bar Fire burned in a characteristic, weather-driven pattern, reinforcing the long-suppressed patterns of fire, weather, wind and terrain across the Chetco watershed. The main difference today is our perception of fire, an inability to see its benefits or allow the fire environment to recover naturally. The Chetco Bar Fire was a large, landscape-scale disturbance, it will shape our landscape for centuries and the natural legacies it leaves will provide complexity and habitat until a new forest is renewed. 

Day 2: Quail Prairie Creek
Lower Quail Prairie Creek directly below a series of large, post-fire logging units.


We spent day two in the Quail Prairie Creek canyon, exploring fire-affected, old-growth forests proposed for post-fire, clearcut logging. The Forest Service has proposed extensive post-fire logging across wide swaths of the Quail Prairie watershed, including units adjacent to the riparian reserve and the inner gorge of Quail Prairie Creek. These units drop into Quail Prairie Creek for nearly two miles in the lower portion of the stream. The logging will increase sedimentation by disturbing soils, removing snags, live trees and future large woody debris. In time, many of the large standing snags would fall to the forest floor or end up in the clear, blue stream, providing habitat and bank stability. Wildfires are well known for the pulse of snags and downed wood they provide. This pulse of wood creates significant benefits to nearby fisheries and streams. The large wood deposited after fires is very important for the health of our imperiled anadramous fish.

Ancient, fire-affected forest proposed for clearcut logging in both roadside hazard logging and unit salvage on the northwest facing slopes above Quail Prairie Creek.
We hiked a northwest facing slope through both stands underburned in the fire and forest scorched at high severity. Tanoak, evergreen huckleberry, Pacific madrone, chinquapin and other species have begun to resprout, creating the first signs of vegetative recovery and producing nutritious browse for local deer and elk. 

A 72" diameter tree proposed for logging.
Although portions of the area were even-aged plantation stands, the majority of the area contains intact forest legacies and exceptional biodiversity that will be enhanced as the forest regenerates and evolves in response to the Chetco Bar Fire. Many large, old growth snags are proposed for logging in both roadside hazard units and post-fire logging units, some snags targeted for removal are over 70" in diameter and are likely hundreds of years old. Thousands of acres throughout the Quail Prairie watershed are proposed for clearcut, post-fire logging in old forest habitats and in plantation stands. 

In a few locations young redwoods can be found growing among forests once dominated by Douglas fir. In one location we found old-growth Douglas fir trees scorched at high severity and a single redwood tree, scorched by the fire, but responding with vigorous, green basal sprouts throughout the trunck of the tree. This single redwood tree, likely spread into the area from the nearby Snaketooth Butte redwood stands, is located within a roadside hazard unit. The entire stand of fire-killed Dougals fir snags will be removed in the roadside logging prescriptions. The felling and yarding of massive old Douglas fir trees will potentially damage the isolated redwood tree, reducing its viability.

We also hiked large portions of proposed post-fire logging units in lower Quail Prairie Creek, including sections 2, 3 and part of section 36. What we found was shocking! Large swaths of fire-affected forest are proposed for removal, with logging proposed in intact habitats on steep, erosive slopes. Although some are saying that the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project will focus on second growth plantation stands, the units in Quail Prairie Creek demonstrate otherwise. 

Conclusions
The Chetco River is simply too valuable to clearcut and degrade with post-fire, clearcut logging.

The proposed Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project will have severe impacts to the exceptional water quality and fisheries habitat in the Chetco River watershed. The project will log previously unmanaged and unlogged habitats with complex forest legacies. Fire-killed snags will be removed across large portions of the landscape, reducing snag habitat, large downed wood recruitment, decreasing slope stability and increasing sedimentation rates. Logging old snags and living green trees will degrade late successional values and wildlife habitat, while reducing forest complexity for hundreds of years.
Post-fire, clearcut logging on private timberland in the Chetco Bar Fire area. Do you want your public land to look like this? The Forest Service does. Stop the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project!

Forest regeneration will also be impacted by removing large snags and trees, disturbing soils, destroying natural tree and shrub regeneration and damaging soils. Tree planting prescriptions proposed to follow clearcut logging will homogenize the post-fire environment, limit biodiversity, and eliminate the fire-adapted conditions that develop after a large wildfire. 

Numerous scientific studies conducted across the region demonstrate that dense tree plantations tend to burn at high severity and encourage stand replacing fire effects. It is widely understood that plantation stands sustain the highest level of fire severity in the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains, and are extremely susceptible to stand replacing effects. Unfortunately, the Forest Service is proposing to create an additional 13,000 acres of new plantation within the forests of the Chetco River. The results will be disastrous.

The Wild and Scenic Chetco River is one of the wildest, clearest rivers on the West Coast. It defines the Wild Rivers Coast of southern Oregon and is far too valuable to clearcut and degrade with post-fire logging and plantation development. The uniquely diverse and fire-adapted forests should not be converted to even-aged monoculture tree plantations. The Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project should be canceled. Post-fire logging will not benefit the watershed, will not reduce fire risks, and will not encourage the regeneration of healthy, diverse forest ecosystems for the future. 

Stop the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project!
The beautiful lower Chetco River after the Chetco Bar Fire.

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