Science vs. Politics

I wrote this piece back during the Bush administration, but with the huge forest fires we had this summer, and the logging industry’s lust for all those dead trees, it is still relevant.

Today’s LA Times had an article about a graduate student at Oregon State University who is learning what happens when a scientist publishes something that the “establishment” doesn’t like.

Daniel Donato and his colleagues conducted a study on reforestation of areas burned by forest fires.  What they found was not what the logging industry and their paid-for representatives in Congress wanted to hear.

Congress has authorized “post-fire logging” in burned over areas of public lands…national forests and parks.  The logging companies have lobbied intensively to do this, arguing that clearing out the dead wood would speed the natural recovery and reforestation process.  But nobody has really proved that this is true.  Donato and his research team did detailed counts of tiny seedling trees in areas that had been logged and compared the counts to those in areas that had not.  Their findings…that post-fire logging actually “hindered forest re-growth”…was not a popular finding with logging companies and their shills.  What they found was that land that had been left alone had “abundant natural regrowth,” compared to “far fewer tree seedlings on plots that had been logged.”  The researchers also found fallen wood from timber operations that could fuel future fires.  From this, they concluded that “post-fire logging, by removing naturally seeded conifers and increasing surface fuel loads, can be counterproductive.”

When the results were published in the online version of the journal Science, all Hell broke loose.  A federal agency yanked funding for his project (imagine that!), irate politicians and timber interests Emailed Donato’s dean to complain, and he was hauled before Congressional hearings and grilled.  Even some of his professors tried to keep his paper from being published.  So much for academic freedom.  So much for objectivity.

The big mistake that Donato made was publishing his paper at the wrong time.  Congress was considering legislation to make it easier for logging companies to do “salvage logging” of dead trees on federal land.   The bill, backed by the Bush administration, is based on the idea that burned forests recover more quickly if they are logged and then replanted.

Salvage logging accounts for roughly one-third of the timber sales from national forests.  But Donato and his team found that the dead trees provide wildlife habitat and nourishment for the new forest, resulting in a richer, more productive ecosystem.  Of course, the logging industry disagrees, claiming that the dead trees, left to rot are a waste of resources.

“It’s a one-page research note,” Donato said, referring to the paper published in Science.  “It’s not that earth-shattering, and it really would be very easy to put the paper in context and sort of almost trivialize it.  Instead, it’s been turned into this giant political thing.  It just blows me away.  I never anticipated that.”

OSU dean of forestry, Hal Salwasser, a former US Forest Service official, has publicly advocated the salvage bill.  In an interview with the Times, the dean said he did not argue with the data that Donato’s team found, but with the conclusions they reached.  But his Emails make it clear where he stands.  He called anti-logging activists “scam artists” and “goons.”

Worse yet, the OSU College of Forestry gets 12% of its research funding from state timber receipts.  One company that operates helicopters to haul out salvaged logs donated 1 million dollars to the college for an endowed professorship.  They also gave more than $300,000 to Republican committees and candidates, including $22,000 to the author of the salvage bill.  You can see why these people are upset by Donato’s paper.  They paid for a different result!

The chief editor of Science, Donald Kennedy, was appalled.  “It certainly was an attempt at censorship,” he said, adding that he ran the piece because it offered sound, peer-reviewed research on a subject of “considerable interest.”  He pointed to the suspension of funding by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as “part of a broader discord between science and politics.”  Kennedy is a former president of Stanford University.

Kennedy went on to say, “I do think there’s a kind of attitude in (the Bush) administration that…prefers to constrain scientists to talk not about their own views and their own conclusions, but to stick to an administration line about many of these issues.”

Donato said that the hue and cry over his work has only served to highlight the study.  “I probably wouldn’t have gotten half the attention I have, probably not even a quarter of the attention, without the efforts of those guys to try and stop it.”

The Bushies never seem to learn.  They have to control everything…but it usually comes back to bite them.  Pride goeth before a fall.

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