News Archive

posted 04/01/05

Damaged Forests May Be Better Left to Mother Nature’s Devices

A blowndown forest in northwestern Colorado, approximately five years after a windstorm blew over 10,000 hectares of spruce and fir trees. Many conifer seedlings survived the windstorm and are growing up in between the blown over trees. Earth Institute Fellow Cristina Rumbaitis-del Rio studies the affects of salvage logging on forest regeneration. Photo credit: Jeff Walker

In 1997 a devastating storm left Colorado’s Routt National Forest with substantial blow-down areas where tens of thousands of trees were completely or partially uprooted or knocked down. “Winds of over 200 mph knocked trees over like toothpicks,” said Cristina Rumbaitis-del Rio, a fellow at The Earth Institute.

Two years later, the U.S. Forest Service opened the protected area to salvage logging in the hopes of accelerating recovery. Rumbaitis-del Rio, then a Ph.D. candidate studying ecology, seized the opportunity to study the effects of salvage logging on Routt.

From 1999 to 2004, Rumbaitis-del Rio analyzed 15 experimental plots that were left in three distinct states: unmolested blow down, salvage-logged and intact “control” plots, comparing and contrasting their recovery. Her study showed that the salvage-logged plot had only 28 percent seedling growth while the blow-down plot had 60 percent growth (this study is now being peer-reviewed for publication).

Salvage logging has come under fire since 2003 when the U.S. government passed the Healthy Forest Restoration Act. The Act eliminates a great deal of the public review process which allows or denies private interests to clear felled trees. Proponents of the Act claim that expediting salvage logging activities will help cut down on the risk of forest fires and insect infestations by clearing away dead, dry wood. Environmentalists have countered that what others see as “reducing red tape and needless delays” is actually doing away with a careful and sometimes lengthy process that works to protect the forests natural recovery.

“There are certainly parts of the Act that are good, like keeping hazardous fuels out of protected lands,” said Rumbaitis-del Rio, “but it is indiscriminate in terms of who has access to these forests.”

“Whatever happens to the forests has to be sustainable, for people as well as for the environment,” she added.

Rumbaitis-del Rio is now conducting research at the Earth Institute involving land use and land cover change in northwestern Argentina, and the effects of those changes on regional nutrient budgets.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit www.earth.columbia.edu.