Back in the 1950s, graduate students in forestry, botany and agriculture at the University of New Hampshire met once a week to brawl. They'd roll up their sleeves and let fly about soil biology, duke it out over forest productivity and batter each other with data on woodland habitat. Two hours later, they'd roll down their sleeves, button their cuffs, pick up their papers and treat each other with utmost respect until the next week's meeting.
Those academic brouhahas are among Art
Partridge's favorite memories. He got his Ph.D. from New Hampshire
in 1957 and has spent the last 35 years teaching forest pathology
at the University of Idaho in Moscow. Partridge believes in the
power of honest argument, and he sees plenty to argue about in
Western forestry these days.
For starters, a
forest health emergency has been declared all over the West, and
Partridge's data say there isn't one. Although legislation was
passed last summer expediting the removal of "unhealthy" trees,
Partridge considers the forests of the inland Northwest healthier
than he's seen them in three decades.
whole salvage thing is nothing but a trick to get more timber out,"
he growls. "As far as forest health is concerned, they're going to
cut anything they damn well please. I'm glad I'm not a tree. I'm
old enough to cut."
In 1993, he evaluated trees
at more than 60 sites in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and
Wyoming, and found less than 1 percent of the standing trees
diseased or insect-infested. He argues that root rot, insects and
fire are forces in a cycle that takes out weak trees and returns
them to the soil as nutrients (see story next
But a new law has shut down much of the
room for debate. When President Clinton signed the rescissions bill
this summer, a rider attached to it increased the amount of timber
slated to be removed as salvage in the next two years from 3.1
billion to 4.5 billion board-feet. These salvage sales - which will
account for nearly half the timber taken off the national forests
during that period - won't be subject to public comment. And a
forest health bill being drafted in Congress could take up where
the salvage legislation leaves off when it sunsets in
Partridge says these bills have everything
to do with politics and nothing to do with science. In 1974, for
example, a "disastrous' 12 percent of the trees he surveyed were
infested with root disease.
"When I first started
working here we saw massive root disease," he says. "There wasn't
just a little bit; it was everywhere. Why didn't they declare an
emergency then? Thirty years ago they paid no attention. Now all of
a sudden because they want to cut timber, we've got a real problem.
It's a hoax."
Although Partridge is dismissed by
some faculty as having "a singular view of the world," he says
others agree with him but are too afraid of professional backlash
to speak out. But he has strong allies in his students - who have
voted him teacher of the year half a dozen times - and
environmentalists, a group this former logger once suspected of
overprivilege but whose members variously call him "invaluable," "a
gift" and "a man of immovable integrity." He is also an optimist,
confident that the political tide will change.
"If they want to be stupid, let them," he says of the forest-health
crisis scientific boosters. "They're going to get caught sometime.
That's their tough luck. I've watched people like this fail time
and time again."
But there is no question whose
science is currently in political
The policy analysis
Jay O'Laughlin, whose office is three doors
down from Partridge's, considers Idaho's forests in a decline that
will continue "unless management action is taken."
His assessment comes in a 250-page study, Forest
Health Conditions in Idaho, published in December 1993. O'Laughlin
was the report's lead author. He is also the head of the Policy
Analysis Group, a university think tank formed six years ago to
keep Idaho's elected officials informed on natural resource issues
with reports like the one on forest health. The publication reports
high levels of beetle-kill in southern Idaho's forests, which are
also susceptible to wildfires. It diagnoses the state's northern
forests as victims of root rot.
pathologists have been studying the root-disease situation in
northern Idaho since 1985," says the report, "and their data reveal
that mature forests throughout northern Idaho are experiencing very
high mortality rates, averaging 3-4 percent in mature stands, which
is well above the expected regional range of .5-.7 percent." The
report also holds root disease accountable for a 40 percent
reduction in timber productivity.
those numbers, Partridge groans and barks, "Nonsense! Using their
kind of math, 44.7 percent of the population of the city of Moscow
is dead or dying."
Why did O'Laughlin ignore a
man he considers "an acknowledged expert in all root diseases' in
his search for data on root rot? Because the policy group relied on
Forest Service data for the forest health report. "I got the (root
rot) lead from a Forest Service planner," he says. He started
talking to Forest Service pathologists out of Missoula, and was
told, "We think the mortality is too high." So he followed up on
But why overlook Partridge's data, which go
back to 1962, for data that go back to 1985? "What you might get is
dueling pathologists in there," says O'Laughlin. "I don't think
that serves anybody very well."
It is hard to imagine two scientists
more different than O'Laughlin and Partridge. The only thing they
have in common is that both are in great political demand.
Partridge has been to Washington, D.C., three times this year to
testify against the salvage and forest health bills, and has
appeared in videos supporting the environmentalists' point of
O'Laughlin has traveled the region to
explain the Policy Analysis Group's forest health report, which was
brandished by Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig during hearings on
legislation to keep forests open to salvage logging.
The two scientists reflect the fractured state
of Western logging. They also represent two of the farthest-flung
points of a forestry faculty that one observer calls "all over the
map." They may also provide plenty of reason for their recently
appointed dean, Charles Hatch, to reach for his aspirin. Some
members of Hatch's faculty charge that O'Laughlin is too closely
aligned with timber interests. And when talk turns to Partridge's
strong views, the soft-spoken, well-regarded Hatch lets out an
"I just expect him to do good
science that will stand up to professional scrutiny," says Hatch.
"We'd prefer that faculty base their conclusions on
well-documented, complete science that's scrutinized by peers. He
does do that, but oftentimes he and other scientists comment before
the process is complete."
Partridge, now 69,
logged with horses in the woods of Maine during his high school
years and made money in the 1940s chopping firewood out of downed
oak on Long Island. He hauled them into Manhattan behind a Model A
The 49-year-old O'Laughlin earned a
bachelor's degree in business administration at the University of
Denver, then spent three years making tents for an outdoor gear
company before getting advanced degrees in forest policy and
economics from the University of Minnesota.
Policy Analysis Group hasn't made policy recommendations in the 12
reports it's completed so far. Instead, it sticks to pointing out
alternatives. O'Laughlin mirrors this policy perfectly. He is a
large, cordial man who, in conversation, is seamlessly
"It's easier for me not to form
opinions about things," he says. "As an academic I'm very sensitive
about the issue of advocacy. I'm an analyst; I'm not an advocate.
I've been doing it for so long it's easy for me. I'm trying to work
in the middle here."
But he admits objectivity
is a tall order: Using data from one source rather than another
automatically injects values into the process. But that's something
he can live with. "You have to," he says. "If I couldn't, I'd still
be working on the first report after six years. I'm trained as an
economist; I have a business background. That affects the way I
think about the world. But I'm also very concerned about the
environment ... I'm a hard-core fly fisherman, very concerned about
water quality, trout habitat. That's why I went into natural
resources in the first place. So trying to balance all these things
is difficult. I try to find the middle ground in these issues and
that's a large area."
dispenses opinions as easily as Idaho clouds dispense rain. He
calls the Policy Group's forest-health report "totally useless
junk," once called a college official "a wart on the ass of
progress," and considers the salvage law a recipe for "ecological
Partridge believes science should
call the shots on what happens in the forest; O'Laughlin says,
"Science doesn't have the answer to these difficult questions
because the questions are basically political."
Does O'Laughlin think gaps in our scientific
knowledge should be filled before policy decisions are
"You can't wait," says O'Laughlin. "The
world goes on ... And the people need the wood products."
Partridge says that years ago he, too, "was
indoctrinated in the "cut and get" philosophy. But I got turned
around when I saw the lying going on in the Forest Service. I
worked for them (in Missouri) in the 1950s and "60s. They did the
same things they are doing now.
"I remember I
did a study of oak wilt back then; the mortality rate, infection
rate was something like .005 percent of the forest. They were
getting big money for the study, so they didn't want to say it
wasn't a problem.
"I quit the Forest Service for
a number of reasons, but one of the main ones was the idea of
"We're one big happy family; let's not let this problem get out to
the public." It irked me no end. You work for a public agency, and
you're not supposed to tell the public what you're
So he's been a rabble-rouser for a long
"You can't go through life making people
love you," he says. "Or you don't create anything."