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


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HCN So there was some positive?

DONATO Yes. It’s definitely been a good learning experience, enlightening and emboldening. But it wasn’t very fun. It was good to put a study out there that withstood so much scrutiny. Most papers get published, read by a few people, and that’s pretty much it. We got so many levels of scrutiny on this little one-pager. And it survived. That’s when you know you’ve done good work. Now there’s other science coming out that’s finding similar conclusions — that seedlings duke it out with the shrubs and come out on top. That’s congruent with our primary conclusions, and that’s very gratifying.

HCN What was the hardest thing?

DONATO Being caught in the middle of this polarized debate. I know forestry is in part a social science, that people have preconceived notions and they’ll believe what fits more than the facts at hand; but two professional statisticians gave public testimony on our findings, and still some people believed that felling big dead trees on little seedlings didn’t kill them, or that we were making up the data. That was really hard to swallow.

HCN How long did all this go on?

DONATO It’s still going on. It’s a year and a half later and I’m talking to a reporter. But it totally consumed my waking hours for about six months. When the paper first came out, I didn’t sleep for about five days. The media storm and the intense reactions really shook me up. I’m normally a wallflower. I was taking classes, and for the first time I had to take an incomplete — I just couldn’t keep up.

HCN You received a bachelor’s of science in oceanography and in forest ecology in 1998, but didn’t enter graduate school until 2003. What did you do in between?

DONATO I worked as a biologist all around the Western U.S. and Alaska. I surveyed for goshawks, desert tortoises and Canadian lynx, did botany work and fire-effects studies. I worked seasonally for different agencies and in between jobs, traveled around with whatever money I could save up — living-out-of-my-car kind of a thing.

HCN What do you do for fun?

DONATO I’m a water junkie. I love being in, and on, the water. The garage is full of boats — raft, sea kayak, canoe, much to my wife’s chagrin.

HCN So what else is in your garage?

DONATO A bunch of fishing rods, backpacking equipment, some woodworking stuff, gardening tools, a chain saw.

HCN Husky or Stihl?

DONATO Stihl — of course.

HCN Work and play, you’ve spent a lot of time in the woods. What’s been your coolest experience?

DONATO Walking through a forest as it’s burning, coming face to face with a mountain lion, viewing both oceans at once from the top of a mountain.

HCN Do you have any regrets about last year?

DONATO Not really; things went down favorably for us overall. But we maintained a low profile. Sometimes I think it would have been good to be more vocal about calling out the crazy criticisms. You know, there was a bit of a what I call now the Weapons of Mass Destruction phenomenon — where rumors about the way things went down just got repeated until they gained traction.

HCN So where are you with your research now?

DONATO We’re done collecting data and now we’re crunching numbers. There’s a giant mound of data — like a huge beast I have to tame. I’m writing papers — and we have three already in the review process.

HCN Any advice to offer from this?

DONATO Yeah, when I see other researchers intimidated or hesitant about their results, it’s really poignant for me. I really encourage people not to self-censor. Ask important questions regardless of outside controversy. Do solid work. Stick to your guns. But stay humble.

HCN The Cubs game over?

DONATO Yes, it is.

HCN Who won?

DONATO Not the Cubs — one thing harder than last year is being a Cubs fan.

The author recently finished her tenure as an HCN intern and will soon be perched in a fire lookout in southern Oregon.

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