Environmental paradigm spurs collaborative research

  • Lisa Petruss takes notes on OSU research forest

    Courtesy OSU College of Forestry
  • Grad student Mark Hanus in OSU's research forest

    Courtesy OSU College of Forestry

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, The end of certainty, in a special issue about the West's forestry schools.

For many years, the federal government spent more money studying the breeding and production of corn than it did studying forests. Yale Forestry Professor John Gordon speculates this was related to our myth of an inexhaustible Western frontier: Americans believed that if we needed more trees, or grass, or wilderness, the vast, unpopulated West would always provide it.

But the myth that Western forests are infinite and simple is starting to fade. In 1990, the National Research Council advised Congress to increase funding for research at forestry schools.

"A new paradigm will need to be adopted - an environmental paradigm," announced the advisory group's report. Such a change would require forestry research to "increase the breadth of research areas covered and the depth to which they are investigated."

Scientists say those recommendations still hold true. The need for increased research is compounded by a growing crisis in both the health and productivity of our forests, according to Dick Fisher, one of the authors of the report and the head of the Department of Forest Science at Texas A&M University.

But this Congress' purse strings are pulled painfully tight, a situation which Fisher says is aggravated by the politically charged nature of forestry these days.

"In Washington, D.C., in particular, a third of the people dislike you if you have something to do with ecosystem management," he says. "Others dislike you if you don't have anything to do with ecosystem management. I think the big decrease in Forest Service research funding this year (from $193 million to $178 million) stems from the fact that there's a bunch of (congresspeople) on the appropriating committee who think the Forest Service has gone way to the left of the spectrum."

Officials in Western forestry schools - which customarily get most of their research funding from the federal government - are concerned about Congress' tightening grasp on the schools' customary sources of research dollars, such as the U.S. Forest Service. But academic forest scientists are developing new sources of funding both inside and outside the halls of government, and are increasing cooperative research efforts with the U.S. Forest Service and others.

"I think what we're seeing is more partnerships, more collaborative work," says Perry Brown, dean of the University of Montana's School of Forestry. "We're putting our heads together and figuring out new ways of doing business where we have state, federal and private forest scientists working together.

"I think collaboration is a very welcome side effect," he adds. "At a university we have to model that. If we don't model it, the students aren't going to learn it."

For a copy of the National Research Council's 84-page report, Forestry Research: A Mandate for Change, send $14.95 plus $4 shipping to the National Academy of Sciences, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W., Box 285, Washington, DC 20055, or order by calling 800/624-6242. The private, nonprofit National Research Council advises Congress on scientific matters.