The timing was coincidental, but also revealing.
Three months after the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest announced its plan to cut trees in the southwest corner of Baker County where tree-killing mountain pine beetles have reached epidemic levels, a fire, probably caused by human activities, started in that area.
The Rail fire has burned more than 11,000 acres since it was reported July 31.
Critics will accuse the Wallowa-Whitman of procrastination, of fiddling while Baker County burns, but this is not altogether fair. Forest officials aren’t responsible for whomever sparked the blaze. Absent that spark, the Rail salvage project might have started as planned in 2017, and the worst effects of the beetle epidemic dealt with before fire, as it inevitably will in lodgepole pine-dominated forests, cleaned the slate.
But the larger point here is that the Rail project might have been a marginal proposal regardless. Almost half of the proposed commercial logging would have been salvage — cutting dead or dying lodgepoles and ponderosa pines, all less than 21 inches in diameter. The lodgepole in particular is not a valuable source of lumber.
However, projects such as Rail — even modified as it certainly will be due to the fire — could supply considerable amounts of wood for a variety of purposes other than sawing the logs into boards.
Local officials are beginning to investigate some of those purposes, including chopping the trees into chips that are burned to produce power, turning the material into fertilizer, or even, as will be happening at a new factory in Lakeview, making jet fuel from what used to be considered a waste product.
Fortunately new technology makes it possible, in some cases, to make use even of burned trees.
But it’s far more beneficial, to the economy and to the environment, to remove the trees before they burn. We just have to find profitable ways to process those trees, or even good ideas such as the Rail project might never produce anything but paperwork.