FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Most scientific researchers would rather calculate a value for pi by hand than wander into a messy public policy debate. After all, what's the point? Policy makers want simple answers to complicated questions. They want certainties, not the cautious probabilities most scientists have to offer. Worst of all, policy makers control research money, set university budgets and keep lists of people they don't like.
So what would lure into the debate a
professional whose success rests on publishing technical journal
articles policy makers could never
Perhaps simple concern over the fate of
At least, that's how researchers at
Northern Arizona University, led by Wallace Covington and Margaret
Moore, explain their increasingly deliberate effort to interject
themselves into the confrontation over the best way to protect the
Southwest's forests. They have come into the war zone with an
intriguing tool - a partial portrait of the robust, diverse
ponderosa pine forest that covered the Southwest before white
settlers arrived. After a century of harvesting trees as if they
were crops, that portrait makes it possible to imagine an
alternative: Manage logging so that it rehabilitates millions of
acres of ecologically impoverished forest.
The scientific effort has been
spearheaded by Covington, a Yale-trained ecologist who came to this
university in Flagstaff in 1975, and Moore, an ecologist who
arrived from the University of Minnesota in 1986. An
interdisciplinary array of scientists have provided research
support, including entomologist Mike Wagner, plant ecophysiologist
Tom Kolb, soil ecologist Steve Hart, and tree-ring specialist Joy
The first phase of the research was to
"reconstruct" presettlement forests in several intensively studied
Researchers mapped each area. Using
tree-ring dating, they calculated the ages of most of the trees,
stumps and decaying wood samples. Then they used computer modeling
techniques to sweep away all the trees that had grown up since 1890
while electronically reincarnating the vanished
The forests they grew on their screens
contained within them smaller habitats: patches of giant ponderosa
pine with a grassy undergrowth, young trees, and so on. This mosaic
was caused by fire, insects, disease and other natural
But the forest was dominated by
centuries-old trees, with rich ecological niches provided by snags
(dead trees) mixed in with meadows and aspen
The presettlement forests were healthier
than today's crowded, even-age forests, which are vulnerable to
devastating wildfires and disease. Before white settlement, there
were anywhere from 10 to 50 trees per acre - far fewer than modern,
managed forests which pack in several hundred trees per acre. The
ancient trees probably shaded less than 30 percent of the forest
floor, letting in enough sunlight to support a lush growth of
"The key was the range of variability,"
says Moore. "It's a matter of scale, not just average density. It's
a question of patchiness and diversity, not just counting trees."
Once they had reconstructed the ancient forests
on the computer, the researchers used computer models to predict
what happens, for example, if the forest managers leave all the
dead snags, or don't cut any trees more than 18 inches in diameter.
Or what happens if they allow cattle to graze, or let loggers clear
most of the trees between 5 and 15 inches in diameter every 10
years, or utilize periodic controlled burns, or clearcut scattered
areas to create meadows, or cut down large stands of
Simple answers are
The researchers have paid a price for
tackling such controversial issues. Their findings have been used
to support arguments across the spectrum. The timber industry
seized on the findings to justify increasing harvests; the Forest
Service brandished the results in adopting controversial policies
such as a management plan for goshawks which calls for thinning the
forest. Meanwhile, environmentalists wondered warily whether the
university scientists had been co-opted by industry. "Their message
is so muddled it will continue to be seen as a green light to
continue to do industrial logging in the Southwest," says Phoenix
activist Robin Silver.
The scientists are all too
aware of the myriad interpretations - and misinterpretations - of
"We've been the bouncing ball - back
and forth, back and forth," says Moore wearily. "We've been
misquoted constantly - or quoted incompletely. They quote us as
saying the forest is too dense, but then don't mention that we're
also saying you don't cut the presettlement trees older than about
100 years old.
"At first, we tried to ignore the
misquotes and unfair criticism; then we started standing up for
ourselves and fighting back a little bit. That's the nice thing
about the university - once you've got tenure. You can do solid
research, and say, "Here are the results."
Ironically, the day after she said this, her
science partner-husband was misquoted in the Arizona Republic, in a
front-page spread on the closure of the last Kaibab Industries
timber mill in Arizona. The article said Covington recommended "the
cutting of most old trees, removing vegetation from the base of
large trees and allowing more controlled fires."
Covington had recommended saving the old
"I've made it clear for 20 years there's
been a population crash of old-growth trees - leave the damn things
alone!" said Covington.
"You go to all this
trouble to set the record straight, to do good science, to make
accurate statements," fumed Moore, "and the newspaper says you
recommend cutting all the old trees."
scientists have also had to put up with misinterpretation from
those who want to apply their site-specific findings - most of
which pertain to Arizona's ponderosa pine forests - to other areas
and other tree species. The pair repeatedly emphasize that new
baseline data have to be prepared for each landscape.
"This recipe approach is a real problem," says
Covington. "We're doing studies in North Dakota, Washington state,
into Mexico - we're trying to understand that range of variability.
We'd never say the Black Hills data should be extrapolated to
Durango, Mexico. People want a simple answer, and it's not simple."
Covington and Moore made headlines
this year when the Southwest was hit with a huge double message:
The rescissions bill signed into law in July opened up vast tracts
of forest for salvage logging. Then, in August, a successful
environmental lawsuit shut down all logging in Arizona and New
Mexico until the Forest Service made sure their forest plans
adequately protected the Mexican spotted owl. Some timber was freed
up for cutting last month (HCN, 10/30/95).
political schizophrenia resulting from the shutdowns made Covington
and Moore the people of the hour in Arizona, where Arizona
Republican Rep. Jon Kyl held a hearing centered on the scientists'
belief that the right kind of logging can play a crucial role in
restoring the Southwest's forests.
environmentalists and industry representatives took turns
identifying themselves with Covington and Moore and challenging
their opponents, they all filed onto buses and journeyed in
relative peace to Covington's experimental plot.
The plot they visited grows ponderosa pine on
the Pearson National Forest just outside Flagstaff. There,
university scientists are experimenting with restoring an
ecologically diverse, "old-growth" forest on a four-acre patch
where they can control tree densities, measure soil nutrients and
cautiously restore fire to the system. One portion of the managed
forest has been left with its hundreds of trees per acre, while
another portion was thinned to more closely resemble the patchy
spaciousness of the presettlement forest.
latter area researchers then removed a century's accumulation of
highly flammable pine duff from the ground and scattered mown hay
from nearby meadows to stimulate the growth of the grassy
understory of the presettlement forest.
experiment showed that the larger trees grew much faster once freed
from competition with hordes of smaller trees. They also produced
more pitch, which helps them heal faster and resist insect
Scientists also found that using
fire without first thinning and removing deadfall poses tough
problems. Working with the Forest Service, they tried a controlled
burn in one section of the forest after cutting down most of the
small trees but before removing the accumulated dead wood. The
flames damaged the large, surviving trees more severely than
scientists expected. They concluded that in addition to removing
most of the small trees, forest managers will have to clear a
protective zone around the remaining large trees before
Those findings suggest what sounds like
heresy to some environmentalists: only the timber industry can
provide the ground-level labor necessary to thin the forest and
protect the remaining big trees.
"If you get rid
of the timber industry, you don't have any infrastructure in place
to remove the smaller diameter trees," says ecologist Moore. "You
need to switch to some combination of the timber industry and
service contracts - cutting the small diameter trees and removing
the fuel load. The timber industry can make money off that -
there's millions of acres out there. They'll have maybe 60, 70, 80
years worth of work" to return the forest to a healthy, low-density
mosaic in which fire could once again safely play a major
The Forest Service made $500 to $1,000 per
acre from an experiment with this type of logging, says Covington,
adding that timber companies made a bit more. The profit from
selling the thickets of small trees can generate enough money to
pay for the other, needed restoration work, suggesting that
large-scale restoration is economically viable.
The profit, of course, pales when compared to
the $10,000 per acre loggers would earn if they had gone for the
remaining large trees.
But the recent lawsuits
and political setbacks suffered by the region's logging industry
have made it clear that business cannot continue as usual. Some
logging companies are considering directions they wouldn't have
contemplated in years past.
For instance, Jim
Matsen took several field trip seminars sponsored by Northern
Arizona University while he was vice president of Kaibab
Industries, a job he left when the company closed its Fredonia mill
in January. He agreed that the timber industry should refocus its
efforts on the smaller trees and noted that most mills can
profitably cut six-inch trees already. "I think a lot of people in
the industry held out too long, saying we could only survive on
cutting the larger-size trees without looking at the alternatives,"
He says the key to survival for the
timber industry probably lies in accepting a new role based on
leaving most of the larger trees alone and thinning the small
"We've just got total gridlock brought
about by appeals, goshawks, spotted owls, whatever," he says. "If
we could just reach agreement that we've got way too many trees and
we've got to do something about it, then the capital, facilities
and marketing will be brought to bear.
that's not going to happen if you're worried that as soon as you
get the new plant built, there's not going to be any wood
available," adds Matsen. "It's time for the environmental community
to switch tactics and start encouraging this kind of development."
A university with an open
It's possible that the scientists' next move
- a plan for restoration on Mount Trumbull, a 10,000-acre ponderosa
forest on Bureau of Land Management land - may generate just that
kind of encouragement. The plan would establish an ecological
baseline in the forest, while ensuring that timber companies turn a
profit thinning the understory and clearing protective zones around
the larger trees, which would be virtually untouched.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt strongly
supports the experiment and has promised to scrounge up research
money to pay for studies there. The area provides an ideal test
case, since the forest harbors a fair number of old-growth trees.
All face an alarming mortality rate as a result of the competition,
infestations and fires caused by a dense understory of younger
"We figure the project will yield $10
million (in timber fees) to the federal government," says
Covington. "We now know enough to design a good ecosystem
management experiment - and we certainly know what will happen if
we do nothing."
Even the fiercest critics of
current forest management techniques see hope in the university's
"The Forest Service consistently distorts
the science," says environmentalist Robin Silver. "But at least
Covington and Moore passed peer review. That's more than you can
say for the Forest Service biologists. Every single opportunity the
Forest Service has had to manage resources in a credible way that
could be peer reviewed they've refused. That's why so many of us
have become so hardened."
Moore says her time in
the eye of the storm has proved instructive - and
"It's difficult to get money for
this kind of research. We went to different places, and people just
weren't interested," she says, noting that they did get a grant
from the Salt River Project utility. It wanted to know how to
increase runoff into its dams and irrigation systems.
"People say, "But doesn't getting money from a
utility bias you?" I say, "Hell no: I collect the data; I analyze
the data; and I publish the results." I'm not interested in getting
Salt River Project more water, nor am I necessarily interested in
keeping Kaibab Industries going - although they've helped us with
Moore says the researchers
have been fortunate in receiving the support of the university
administration - even when they found it difficult to attract
"The liberal arts universities can be
more free-wheeling in their research - they don't have to worry as
much about offending the administration within the university,"
says Covington, who chose to get his degree in ecosystem management
at Yale specifically because it wasn't a land-grant school focused
narrowly on the economic needs of farmers, ranchers and loggers.
For the same reason, he sought a position at Northern Arizona
University - a non-land-grant university that emphasizes
interdisciplinary approaches, team teaching and an emphasis on
"But no matter where you are, the
availability of research money imposes constraints," Covington
says. "We were lucky: We got a lot of support from the university
when we were getting started. Until just recently, it was hard to
get funding to do big questions that go to the very roots of our
assumptions about how to manage the forests. But now we're finally
looking at the health of the ecosystem - not just looking at all
the parts." n