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Feb 27, 2006

We Didn’t Start the Fire (We Just Made Some Money Off It)

Today’s Washington Post reports on a story that I commented on earlier this month (as others did as well). In short, Oregon State University scientists reported in Science magazine that some logging practices may contribute to forest fires, rather than curbing them as conventional wisdom leads us to believe. The report ran contrary to current federal policy under the Bush administration, and the funding for the research group was suspended.
Logging after the Biscuit fire, the study found, has harmed forest recovery and increased fire risk. What the short study did not say -- but what many critics of the Bush administration are reading into it -- is that the White House has ignored science to please the timber industry. The study is consistent with research findings from around the world that have documented how salvage logging can strip burned forests of the biological diversity that fire and natural recovery help protect.

The study also questions the scientific rationale behind a bill pending in Congress that would ease procedures for post-fire logging in federal forests. This, in turn, has annoyed the bill's lead sponsor, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who has received far more campaign money from the forest products industry than from any other source, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Logging after fires is becoming more and more important to the bottom line of timber companies. It generates about 40 percent of timber volume on the nation's public lands, according to Forest Service data compiled by the World Wildlife Fund, and accounts for nearly half the logging on public land in Oregon.

Fortunately, the federal agency involved restored funding rapidly after an outcry by some members of Congress. Still, a hearing was held on the issue last Friday, where the main topic seemed to be how to best discredit the study’s primary author:
The hearing's star witness -- and principal punching bag -- was Daniel Donato, lead author of the Science article and a graduate student at Oregon State's forestry school. By at least a decade, he was the youngest participant in the hearing. Rail thin and wearing neatly pressed khakis, he looked even younger.

Walden accused Donato, 29, of having failed to tell his federal research supervisor about the findings of his study, as is required by the terms of his research contract with the federal government. Donato conceded that he had not known about the requirement for consultation and that he knows more about it now.

Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), another member of the subcommittee and a co-sponsor of the forest recovery bill, was even more disgruntled. He charged Donato with a long list of professional failings and character flaws, including "deliberate bias," lack of humility and ignorance of statistical theory.

Donato smiled nervously through these attacks and politely -- but firmly -- told the hearing that his article was solid on its facts and fair in its conclusions. He also said the forest study should not be viewed as, nor was it intended to be, the final word on post-fire logging.

Overall, the Washington Post article is surprisingly poignant, with its compelling David versus Goliath tale. Although it does not discuss the scientific controversy around the Science report, it does make a point out one of the subtleties that is often glossed over in these types of policy discussions: a discussion of how “effective” a given policy is depends entirely on an agreement of the desired goals of the policy:

After Donato was excused, one of the nation's best-known forest ecologists attempted to summarize the world's collective scientific knowledge on logging after fires. Jerry Franklin, a professor of ecosystem science at the University of Washington's College of Forest Resources, warned the hearing that Congress should be careful not to prescribe salvage logging as a cure-all for every forest fire.

Salvage logging and replanting can often succeed, Franklin said, if the intent is to turn a scorched landscape into a stand of trees for commercial harvest.

If, however, Congress wants to promote the ecologically sound recovery of burned federal forests, Franklin said, the overwhelming weight of scientific research suggests that "salvage logging is not going to be appropriate."

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