The end of certainty

Western universities learn there is more to forestry than chainsaws

  • Forestry schools in this issue

    Diane Sylvain
  • Seeing the forest and the trees - HCN file phot

    llustration c. 1961
  • Clearcuts in Oregon's Willamette National Forest

    Trygve Steen/LightHawk

Note: this story is one of several feature articles in a special issue about the West's forestry schools.

In a painting hanging at the entrance to the University of Idaho Forestry School, a square-jawed forester stands on a stump, smiling broadly over a valley that contains a dam, a reservoir, and large, distant clearcuts. A bird flits among the saplings in the foreground, looking every bit as confident in the future as the logger does.

The painting, given to the university 24 years ago by the Weyerhaeuser Corporation, is a portrait of a particular brand of certainty - the certainty that nature is there for Westerners to use, and that the West's scientists are working to ensure that its dams and clearcuts are of the best, most productive sort.

For most of this century, land-grant universities like the University of Idaho have been the West's major transmitters of that certainty. Unlike the liberal arts colleges of the East - indulgent places where children of the establishment contemplate the ambiguities of the universe before going on to law or medical school - the land-grant colleges of forestry and agriculture were founded to teach the "industrial and mechanical arts." They were everything middle-class America was: youthful, optimistic, democratic, functional and sure. They were made to abolish ambiguity and uncertainty, not embrace them.

Less than a century later, certainty is in short supply on our forests and in our colleges of forestry. Our timberlands are in worse shape than they were before we started logging them - although scientists disagree over why. Our logging industry feels paralyzed by environmental litigation, and the Forest Service has confessed that its policies over the last century are partly to blame. Behind the snarl of lawsuits and legislation convulsing public lands forestry, there lies a larger truth: We don't understand our forests. And we never have.

"Forestry's at the biggest transition it's ever been in and it's going to continue to be in it for the next five to 10 years," says Charles Grier, head of the Department of Forest Sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. "We're going to go from Gifford Pinchot's view (of trees as crops) to Aldo Leopold's view of ecosystem management.

"There's no way this country's ever going to get away from its need for forest products. But it's going to change from forest management for commodities to management for forest health, and wood will be a by-product, rather than an end product."

Change is painful, and uneven. Walk the corridors of any Western forestry school and you will find bewildered academics who feel betrayed by the turn forestry has taken. Down the hall, in the same school, you will find people who welcome the change.

Colleges of forestry do not stand alone. They are part of a complex system made up of state legislatures, the timber industry, the U.S. Forest Service, environmental groups and alumni. Throw in the talent and drive of the individual faculty and the ability of the academic administration to deal with conflict, and inevitably there will be many different responses to the challenges now confronting forestry schools.

This issue of High Country News is about those responses. If we had to pick a leader among the schools profiled here, it would be Northern Arizona University, not only because it has plotted the cleanest, straightest path toward a new kind of forestry, but also because for years it has encouraged the interdisciplinary thinking needed for scientists to solve real problems. NAU has a huge advantage: It is not a land-grant university hobbled by past traditions and mistakes.

Among the land-grant universities, Oregon State University stands out. Although it has the heaviest burden of past traditions and mistakes, it has made remarkable progress.

Colorado State University, located in a state with a relatively small timber industry, is also impressive. Although we have written here about a professor of wildlife biology, not a forest scientist, Rick Knight's unearthly energy and innovation - and the support he's received from the academic administration - show CSU is a school committed to changing with the times.

Set against these successes is a spectacular failure - the University of Washington, which ironically has the money and talent to be the most helpful academic player in the West's forestry debate. Like Northern Arizona University, UW is outside the land-grant system. But if NAU demonstrates the creative work that can be done away from the tradition-bound land grants, UW makes you miss the homey parts of that system - the outreach, the mandate to be helpful, the tradition of courtesy and collegiality. UW has become a big-wheel research university whose competitive atmosphere has kept researchers guarding their scientific and political turfs.

The University of Idaho is perhaps the most representative of the group. Beset by polarization and academic intrigue, it mirrors the contentiousness racking public-lands forestry. Its forestry faculty is home to scientific opinions that cover the spectrum, with a newly appointed dean trying to hold the flock together.

Progress in academic forestry is nothing if not choppy. The only certainty is that change will continue. One of the greatest changes is that women, minorities and philosophy majors are entering a field long dominated by white men with technical training. In 1990, wildlife biology overtook forest management as the most popular major among graduates from 10 of the West's forestry and natural resources schools. By 1993, its enrollment outstripped forest management's by 25 percent, and one in three of its majors was a woman. Meanwhile, more than one in four forest management majors were women.

There is no guarantee that the newcomers will do a better job with our forests than today's managers. But outsiders bring with them a valuable trait: They already know something about being uncertain, about being off balance. In a field whose history has been characterized by doing the wrong thing well, they are likely to help.

The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:

- Environmental paradigm spurs collaborative research

The High Country News series on land-grant universities, including this special issue, was paid for by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

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