Weathering the academic storm

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

  • A Douglas-fir seedling emerges from a pinecone after a fire; the site was later salvage-logged

    Joe Fontaine
  • Dan Donato, after the Biscuit Fire -- and before the firestorm

    ZIRCOTE.FORESTRY.OREGONSTATE.EDU/TERRA; JOE FONTAINE
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • 2023 SEASONAL AND FULL-TIME POSITIONS AVAILABLE!
    Advance your career while completing vital forest and watershed restoration in wild and scenic northern Sierra!
  • CONSERVATION EASEMENT PROGRAM MANAGER
    We are seeking a dedicated natural resources professional to lead FRLT's Conservation Easement Stewardship Program. This position is responsible for maintaining professional working relationships with...
  • PUBLIC PROGRAMS MANAGER
    We are looking for a hands-on leader to bring our public programs to life in Sierra Valley and across the Watershed. This role offers a...
  • MATADOR RANCH MANAGER
    The Matador Ranch Manager directs operations, communication, and maintenance for TNC Montana's Matador Ranch preserve with a focus on ecological management and restoration, grazing management,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - THRIVE HOOD RIVER (OREGON)
    Thrive Hood River (Oregon) is looking for a collaborative leader who cares deeply about Hood River's wild places, farmland and the quality of life in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities....
  • NORTH FORK RECREATION DISTRICT ADMINISTRATOR
    The NFPPRD District Administrator provides leadership and managerial services associated with the Recreation District. Facilities include a seasonal pool, ballfields, bike trails, tennis/pickleball and skateboarding....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, BADLANDS CONSERVATION ALLIANCE
    The Executive Director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance (BCA) builds and leads a premiere North Dakota advocacy group that serves to protect the ecology of...
  • CLIMATE FELLOW
    Application deadline: Monday, March 6th, 2023, at 5 p.m. MST. Anticipated start date: May 15, 2023 About the position Are you ready to craft an...
  • RISING LEADERS MANAGER
    Application deadline: Monday, March 27, 2023, at 5 p.m. MST Anticipated start date: May 22 or May 30, 2023 About the position Do you want...
  • SENIOR SPECIALIST, LANDSCAPE CONNECTIVITY YELLOWSTONE TO YUKON CONSERVATION INITIATIVE
    About the Organization Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) is a joint Canada-U.S. not-for-profit organization with a mission to connect and protect wildlife habitat from...
  • VIRGINIA SPENCER DAVIS FELLOWSHIP
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a Virginia Spencer Davis fellow. The...
  • GRANTS MANAGER
    The Grants Manager is a passionate information manager, fundraiser, and communicator versed in government and foundation grant and cooperative agreement writing and management, specifically to...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Communications Director is a passionate communications professional versed in conservation and regenerative agriculture, as well as nonprofit communications and data management across several program...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Education and Outreach Director is a people-oriented facilitator, communications wizard, and team leader who has experience designing, managing, and fundraising for land based educational...
  • ADOBE HOME FOR SALE
    Restored traditional adobe home in No. New Mexico on 1+ acre site, irrigation water, separate large shop/studio. Please email for photos/full description.
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
  • DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM SPECIALIST
    hat We Can Achieve Together: If you are a detailed individual that takes pride in your accuracy, this position may be the perfect opportunity for...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    We characterize contaminated sites, identify buried drums, tanks, debris and also locate groundwater.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...