GLENDALE — As Phil Adams’ pickup climbed Rabbit Mountain, the green scenery faded to black. Trees grew sparse and were entirely absent in places.
Still, fully loaded log trucks were coming down the mountain. At the top, loggers unhooked cables attached to charred trees dragged uphill. Except for burn spots, stacked timber appeared in good shape.
The land belongs to Roseburg Forest Products, and the company is urgently salvaging flame-damaged trees before they turn to mush.
“The principle we are following is rapid salvage because value of the timber disintegrates fast,” said Adams, timber manager of Roseburg Resources, RFP’s landholding division.
Since early September, RFP has salvaged 8 million board feet damaged in last summer’s 48,679-acre Douglas Complex fires. The company plans to log another 32 million board feet in the next 18 months.
The fires burned on a mix of private and Bureau of Land Management timberlands, leaving behind the contentious issue of how to restore the land.
While salvage operations are moving fast on private land, the BLM has yet to make firm plans. BLM spokesman Cheyne Rossbach said the agency is aware that dead timber loses value the longer it stays in the forest.
“The private landholders can move much faster, but the BLM has put a lot of resources on it,” Rossbach said. “It’s moving pretty quickly for this process, and ultimately what is going to take place will lead into this summer.”
The dissimilar approaches are noticeable from atop Rabbit Mountain. Much of RFP’s land has been logged. Meanwhile, dead trees, both standing and toppled over, cover the BLM land. The difference creates a quilt pattern across the rolling mountains.
The pattern concerns Adams.
RFP plans to spend $6 million over three years to restore its timberlands, including planting 3.2 million seedlings on 8,000 acres. Adams said the investment would be at risk if another fire breaks out among the dead vegetation on BLM land.
“It’s not a finger-pointing thing, but a reality,” Adams said. “Significant areas of large dead trees and young managed stands completely destroyed by the fire on BLM (lands) will turn into snag patches and brush unless aggressive active management similar to our efforts takes place.
“It’s a management quandary when we are investing on lands near a ridge line of dead timber,” he said. “We are good neighbors with the BLM when the forest is green. But when it gets black and bad things happen, it affects both of us equally, and we have to respond equally to be good neighbors.”
Rossbach said BLM is considering options, including harvesting dead timber, and will hold meetings in January to update the public and ask for comments.
Any plans to salvage timber have to go through environmental reviews and include leaving trees for wildlife habitat, he said.
“We don’t know yet what salvage will look like,” Rossbach said. “We currently have a team in place assessing the lands and what we need to do as far as recovery, and we are setting up another team to look at potential for salvage.”
A dry lightning storm on July 26 ignited the fires 7 miles north of Glendale. Fires burned 24,000 acres on Rabbit Mountain, nearly 24,500 acres on Dad’s Creek and another 250 acres on Farmer Gulch. The complex was the top-priority fire in the nation for 11 days and contributed to the state’s most severe wildfire season in more than half a century, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.
By the time the fires were contained in early September, $51.76 million had been spent on suppression.
RFP was the private landowner most effected by the fires, with 11,000 acres touched by flames, nearly all on Rabbit Mountain. More than half of those acres were burned severely.
Adams said the last wildfire that involved a considerable amount of the company’s land was the 1987 Bland Mountain fire that burned 10,000 acres near Canyonville. RFP owned 3,300 of those acres.
“Douglas Complex is by far the largest wildfire involving RFP lands in Oregon,” Adams said.
The fires also burned through Oregon & California Railroad trust lands, including more than 6,000 acres in the BLM Roseburg District and another 19,000 acres in the Medford District. The remaining acres belong to 27 private landowners.
Not all timber killed in the Douglas Complex is salvageable.
RFP lost trees younger than 35 years old over 7,500 acres, according to a company presentation.
“Stands of trees of this age, while not being economical to harvest, are growing vigorously and considered growing stock for the future,” Adams said.
Plum Creek Timber Company owns more than 7,000 acres inside the Douglas Complex perimeter.
Company spokeswoman Kate Tate said Plum Creek plans to harvest one-third of the acres.
“The remaining acres are either too small in size, too scattered or too burned to salvage,” she said.
Douglas Timber Operators Executive Director Bob Ragon said private landowners have started other cleanup.
“They have done a bunch of road work, culvert replacement and constructed some new roads and are preparing to plant trees after the first of the year,” Ragon said.
Although the BLM does not yet have a plan to salvage timber, it has begun to repair some of the damage done by the fire.
Restoration work on BLM land includes cutting hazardous trees, repairing roads and spreading straw to prevent erosion.
Like the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service will go through environmental reviews to salvage timber burned in the Whiskey Fire 6 miles east of Tiller. Lightning in late July also ignited that fire, burning more than 16,000 acres of mostly Forest Service land.
Tiller Ranger District Donna Owens said she will submit a salvaging proposal Jan. 13 that could include logging an estimated 2 million to 5 million board feet of timber.
Because the proposal has to go through several federal reviews, the earliest that timber sale contracts could be issued is late August or early September.
• You can reach reporter Christina George at 541-957-4202 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.