Weathering the academic storm
by Erin Halcomb
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.
HCN So there was some positive?
DONATO Yes. It’s definitely been a good learning experience, enlightening and emboldening. But it wasn’t very fun. It was good to put a study out there that withstood so much scrutiny. Most papers get published, read by a few people, and that’s pretty much it. We got so many levels of scrutiny on this little one-pager. And it survived. That’s when you know you’ve done good work. Now there’s other science coming out that’s finding similar conclusions — that seedlings duke it out with the shrubs and come out on top. That’s congruent with our primary conclusions, and that’s very gratifying.
HCN What was the hardest thing?
DONATO Being caught in the middle of this polarized debate. I know forestry is in part a social science, that people have preconceived notions and they’ll believe what fits more than the facts at hand; but two professional statisticians gave public testimony on our findings, and still some people believed that felling big dead trees on little seedlings didn’t kill them, or that we were making up the data. That was really hard to swallow.
HCN How long did all this go on?
DONATO It’s still going on. It’s a year and a half later and I’m talking to a reporter. But it totally consumed my waking hours for about six months. When the paper first came out, I didn’t sleep for about five days. The media storm and the intense reactions really shook me up. I’m normally a wallflower. I was taking classes, and for the first time I had to take an incomplete — I just couldn’t keep up.
HCN You received a bachelor’s of science in oceanography and in forest ecology in 1998, but didn’t enter graduate school until 2003. What did you do in between?
DONATO I worked as a biologist all around the Western U.S. and Alaska. I surveyed for goshawks, desert tortoises and Canadian lynx, did botany work and fire-effects studies. I worked seasonally for different agencies and in between jobs, traveled around with whatever money I could save up — living-out-of-my-car kind of a thing.
HCN What do you do for fun?
DONATO I’m a water junkie. I love being in, and on, the water. The garage is full of boats — raft, sea kayak, canoe, much to my wife’s chagrin.
HCN So what else is in your garage?
DONATO A bunch of fishing rods, backpacking equipment, some woodworking stuff, gardening tools, a chain saw.
HCN Husky or Stihl?
DONATO Stihl — of course.
HCN Work and play, you’ve spent a lot of time in the woods. What’s been your coolest experience?
DONATO Walking through a forest as it’s burning, coming face to face with a mountain lion, viewing both oceans at once from the top of a mountain.
HCN Do you have any regrets about last year?
DONATO Not really; things went down favorably for us overall. But we maintained a low profile. Sometimes I think it would have been good to be more vocal about calling out the crazy criticisms. You know, there was a bit of a what I call now the Weapons of Mass Destruction phenomenon — where rumors about the way things went down just got repeated until they gained traction.
HCN So where are you with your research now?
DONATO We’re done collecting data and now we’re crunching numbers. There’s a giant mound of data — like a huge beast I have to tame. I’m writing papers — and we have three already in the review process.
HCN Any advice to offer from this?
DONATO Yeah, when I see other researchers intimidated or hesitant about their results, it’s really poignant for me. I really encourage people not to self-censor. Ask important questions regardless of outside controversy. Do solid work. Stick to your guns. But stay humble.
HCN The Cubs game over?
DONATO Yes, it is.
HCN Who won?
DONATO Not the Cubs — one thing harder than last year is being a Cubs fan.
By Erin Halcomb
© High Country News
The author recently finished her tenure as an HCN intern and will soon be perched in a fire lookout in southern Oregon.