Weathering the academic storm

Dan Donato’s controversial study on salvage logging turned his life upside-down

 

Conifer seedlings catapulted Dan Donato onto the national stage early last year. Before that, he was just another Oregon State University student, working on his Ph.D. in fire ecology and loving the days he spent outside with colleague Joe Fontaine, documenting the comeback of birds, mammals and plants after Oregon’s epic Biscuit Fire. Then, in January 2006, Science published a sliver of their findings that bucked conventional wisdom: Conifer seedlings re-grew abundantly on their own after a forest fire, but comparatively few survived the harvesting and hauling of salvaged logs.

Critics immediately denounced the findings, which contradicted an earlier report by Oregon State University professor John Sessions saying salvage logging and replanting would be necessary to recover the Biscuit’s conifers. Professors and Forest Service scientists badgered Science to pull the article, and the Bureau of Land Management withdrew (but later reinstated) funding for Donato’s study. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Brian Baird, D-Wash., bullied Donato at a congressional hearing, and all the while, ecologists, conservationists and other forest scientists cheered for him.

The furor made front-page news, but Donato shied away from reporters. In April, he finally agreed to an interview about his interests, his research, and what it’s like to go from an unknown forestry geek to a controversial star overnight. We talked while he was at home, studying for his Ph.D. qualifying exam and listening to a Chicago Cubs game.

HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Where did you grow up, Dan?

DAN DONATO I’m a native Oregonian. I grew up in between Portland and Mount Hood before video games took off, so I spent most of my youth in the local woods.

HCN What book are you reading now?

DONATO Burning Questions by David Carle. It’s about Harold Weaver and Harold Biswell — two pioneering fire ecologists. These were the first guys to espouse the idea that low-intensity surface fires are really important to how forests function. Their ideas weren’t popular at first; they went through some less-than-pleasant times — and that strikes a bit of a chord for me.

HCN It reminds you of last year — when you went from grad student to celebrity? What happened?

DONATO Yeah, what did happen? We wrote a paper. We challenged some widespread assumptions, specifically that there’s a lack of natural regeneration after a big fire. The Biscuit Fire was actually being put up as the poster child, and we were sitting on two full years of data that showed not only were seedlings establishing, they were surviving. So we felt like if we were going to have a fully informed public dialogue, it was our responsibility to get those numbers out. And it wasn’t well received by everybody.

HCN But your paper wasn’t just about seedling re-growth. It said that salvage logging harmed re-growth and increased fire risk.

DONATO Yes, salvage is the issue du jour in post-fire management discussions. A lot of ecology is being discussed in terms of salvage, and our paper was no exception. But, by far, the most controversial part was the fact that there were seedlings — there wasn’t supposed to be any seedlings for logging to damage.

HCN Were you surprised by the reaction?

DONATO Yeah. Totally. We realized once it came out that people on all sides were taking it like the gavel came down on post-fire management. We were blown away by that.

HCN You keep referring to “we.” You were part of research group of six, but singled out. Why?

DONATO At first, we decided that I’d be the first author and do the media stuff — and that’d be fun. And it was, at first. It’s great when the scientific community is interested in your work, but I think the media latched on to the David-versus-Goliath angle, and to be honest, for folks who don’t like what the data said, it was easier to cast the study aside if it was just a rogue graduate student and ignore the fact that there were other researchers — with over 75 years of combined experience.

HCN How did the group react?

DONATO They were great. They went through most everything I did, though their names weren’t all over the press. Joe Fontaine — the other graduate student — testified before the state Senate. We would meet in the lab room (which became the “war room” after the shit hit the fan) and write all of our papers and media statements together. We became really close.

HCN After your paper was released in Science, you lost funding, regained funding, testified at congressional hearings, spoke at public forums, and formally responded to critics in the journal. Did I miss anything?

DONATO There were countless meetings and presentations of our research, across the country. We also took agency folks out in the field to show them the sites and explain our study. That was really positive; a lot of people said it changed their perception of our study — favorably. I wish we could have done that more to dispel some of the rumors.