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
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • SOUTHWEST REWILDING ADVOCATE
    WildEarth Guardians is seeking a full-time advocate in our Wild Places Program to advance a new paradigm of forest management and protection based on the...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org