Salvage logging is the practice of removing timber from areas damaged by natural disaster. There are a number of reasons why salvage logging is performed and the practice is controversial in some regions of the world. A number of studies conducted in the 1990s and early 2000s suggested that many of the arguments for salvage logging were not based in scientific inquiry and that the practice can actually be quite damaging. However, researchers also identified the need for additional study to fully explore the impacts of salvage logging before making any final policy decisions.
Forests can be damaged by wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, insect infestations, and a number of other natural disasters. One of the key environmental arguments for clearing the forest area is that it is supposed to help allow regrowth to occur. There are also economic arguments, based on selling the timber to raise funds, as well as aesthetic ones; damaged forests are not pleasant to look at and clearing out dead trees and brush can create a cleaner appearance. Finally, some advocates argue that salvage logging reduces the risk of wildfires by removing dead organic material that could act as tinder.
Under these arguments, salvage logging has been conducted by both government agencies and private companies. Environmental restrictions are relaxed for salvage logging operations to facilitate rapid and efficient removal of damaged plants and trees. The resulting timber is sold on the open market and can be used for a variety of purposes.
Some environmentalists believe that salvage logging is harmful. Studies comparing salvage logged forests with forests that are left alone showed that leaving forests alone actually facilitated more rapid recovery from natural disasters. Human activity can destroy seedlings and damage the soil, making it harder for a forest to regrow after a disaster and contributing to topsoil losses and declines in biodiversity. In addition, studies have shown that this logging practice may actually increase the severity of wildfires.
Furthermore, salvage logging is not very profitable. The timber is often too damaged to be very valuable and the cost of extracting it may actually exceed the potential sales price. This, combined with so-called “green salvage,” where living trees are removed along with dead ones in poorly supervised operations, may be used as a cost-based argument to leave forests alone after a disaster and allow them to recover naturally.