Two views of forest health at the University of Idaho

Are the forests sick or well?

  • Bernard C. DeVoto Memorial Grove, Clearwater National Forest, Idaho

    David Sumner

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

Back in the 1950s, graduate students in forestry, botany and agriculture at the University of New Hampshire met once a week to brawl. They'd roll up their sleeves and let fly about soil biology, duke it out over forest productivity and batter each other with data on woodland habitat. Two hours later, they'd roll down their sleeves, button their cuffs, pick up their papers and treat each other with utmost respect until the next week's meeting.

Those academic brouhahas are among Art Partridge's favorite memories. He got his Ph.D. from New Hampshire in 1957 and has spent the last 35 years teaching forest pathology at the University of Idaho in Moscow. Partridge believes in the power of honest argument, and he sees plenty to argue about in Western forestry these days.

For starters, a forest health emergency has been declared all over the West, and Partridge's data say there isn't one. Although legislation was passed last summer expediting the removal of "unhealthy" trees, Partridge considers the forests of the inland Northwest healthier than he's seen them in three decades.

"This whole salvage thing is nothing but a trick to get more timber out," he growls. "As far as forest health is concerned, they're going to cut anything they damn well please. I'm glad I'm not a tree. I'm old enough to cut."

In 1993, he evaluated trees at more than 60 sites in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, and found less than 1 percent of the standing trees diseased or insect-infested. He argues that root rot, insects and fire are forces in a cycle that takes out weak trees and returns them to the soil as nutrients (see story next page).

But a new law has shut down much of the room for debate. When President Clinton signed the rescissions bill this summer, a rider attached to it increased the amount of timber slated to be removed as salvage in the next two years from 3.1 billion to 4.5 billion board-feet. These salvage sales - which will account for nearly half the timber taken off the national forests during that period - won't be subject to public comment. And a forest health bill being drafted in Congress could take up where the salvage legislation leaves off when it sunsets in 1997.

Partridge says these bills have everything to do with politics and nothing to do with science. In 1974, for example, a "disastrous" 12 percent of the trees he surveyed were infested with root disease.

"When I first started working here we saw massive root disease," he says. "There wasn't just a little bit; it was everywhere. Why didn't they declare an emergency then? Thirty years ago they paid no attention. Now all of a sudden because they want to cut timber, we've got a real problem. It's a hoax."

Although Partridge is dismissed by some faculty as having "a singular view of the world," he says others agree with him but are too afraid of professional backlash to speak out. But he has strong allies in his students - who have voted him teacher of the year half a dozen times - and environmentalists, a group this former logger once suspected of overprivilege but whose members variously call him "invaluable," "a gift" and "a man of immovable integrity." He is also an optimist, confident that the political tide will change.

"If they want to be stupid, let them," he says of the forest-health crisis scientific boosters. "They're going to get caught sometime. That's their tough luck. I've watched people like this fail time and time again."

But there is no question whose science is currently in political favor.

The policy analysis group

Jay O'Laughlin, whose office is three doors down from Partridge's, considers Idaho's forests in a decline that will continue "unless management action is taken."

His assessment comes in a 250-page study, Forest Health Conditions in Idaho, published in December 1993. O'Laughlin was the report's lead author. He is also the head of the Policy Analysis Group, a university think tank formed six years ago to keep Idaho's elected officials informed on natural resource issues with reports like the one on forest health. The publication reports high levels of beetle-kill in southern Idaho's forests, which are also susceptible to wildfires. It diagnoses the state's northern forests as victims of root rot.

"Forest pathologists have been studying the root-disease situation in northern Idaho since 1985," says the report, "and their data reveal that mature forests throughout northern Idaho are experiencing very high mortality rates, averaging 3-4 percent in mature stands, which is well above the expected regional range of .5-.7 percent." The report also holds root disease accountable for a 40 percent reduction in timber productivity.

Confronted with those numbers, Partridge groans and barks, "Nonsense! Using their kind of math, 44.7 percent of the population of the city of Moscow is dead or dying."

Why did O'Laughlin ignore a man he considers "an acknowledged expert in all root diseases' in his search for data on root rot? Because the policy group relied on Forest Service data for the forest health report. "I got the (root rot) lead from a Forest Service planner," he says. He started talking to Forest Service pathologists out of Missoula, and was told, "We think the mortality is too high." So he followed up on that.

But why overlook Partridge's data, which go back to 1962, for data that go back to 1985? "What you might get is dueling pathologists in there," says O'Laughlin. "I don't think that serves anybody very well."

Extremely different, extremely political

It is hard to imagine two scientists more different than O'Laughlin and Partridge. The only thing they have in common is that both are in great political demand. Partridge has been to Washington, D.C., three times this year to testify against the salvage and forest health bills, and has appeared in videos supporting the environmentalists' point of view.

O'Laughlin has traveled the region to explain the Policy Analysis Group's forest health report, which was brandished by Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig during hearings on legislation to keep forests open to salvage logging.

The two scientists reflect the fractured state of Western logging. They also represent two of the farthest-flung points of a forestry faculty that one observer calls "all over the map." They may also provide plenty of reason for their recently appointed dean, Charles Hatch, to reach for his aspirin. Some members of Hatch's faculty charge that O'Laughlin is too closely aligned with timber interests. And when talk turns to Partridge's strong views, the soft-spoken, well-regarded Hatch lets out an audible sigh.

"I just expect him to do good science that will stand up to professional scrutiny," says Hatch. "We'd prefer that faculty base their conclusions on well-documented, complete science that's scrutinized by peers. He does do that, but oftentimes he and other scientists comment before the process is complete."

Partridge, now 69, logged with horses in the woods of Maine during his high school years and made money in the 1940s chopping firewood out of downed oak on Long Island. He hauled them into Manhattan behind a Model A Ford.

The 49-year-old O'Laughlin earned a bachelor's degree in business administration at the University of Denver, then spent three years making tents for an outdoor gear company before getting advanced degrees in forest policy and economics from the University of Minnesota.

The Policy Analysis Group hasn't made policy recommendations in the 12 reports it's completed so far. Instead, it sticks to pointing out alternatives. O'Laughlin mirrors this policy perfectly. He is a large, cordial man who, in conversation, is seamlessly unopinionated.

"It's easier for me not to form opinions about things," he says. "As an academic I'm very sensitive about the issue of advocacy. I'm an analyst; I'm not an advocate. I've been doing it for so long it's easy for me. I'm trying to work in the middle here."

But he admits objectivity is a tall order: Using data from one source rather than another automatically injects values into the process. But that's something he can live with. "You have to," he says. "If I couldn't, I'd still be working on the first report after six years. I'm trained as an economist; I have a business background. That affects the way I think about the world. But I'm also very concerned about the environment ... I'm a hard-core fly fisherman, very concerned about water quality, trout habitat. That's why I went into natural resources in the first place. So trying to balance all these things is difficult. I try to find the middle ground in these issues and that's a large area."

Partridge, meanwhile, dispenses opinions as easily as Idaho clouds dispense rain. He calls the Policy Group's forest-health report "totally useless junk," once called a college official "a wart on the ass of progress," and considers the salvage law a recipe for "ecological carnage."

Partridge believes science should call the shots on what happens in the forest; O'Laughlin says, "Science doesn't have the answer to these difficult questions because the questions are basically political."

Does O'Laughlin think gaps in our scientific knowledge should be filled before policy decisions are made?

"You can't wait," says O'Laughlin. "The world goes on ... And the people need the wood products."

Partridge says that years ago he, too, "was indoctrinated in the "cut and get" philosophy. But I got turned around when I saw the lying going on in the Forest Service. I worked for them (in Missouri) in the 1950s and "60s. They did the same things they are doing now.

"I remember I did a study of oak wilt back then; the mortality rate, infection rate was something like .005 percent of the forest. They were getting big money for the study, so they didn't want to say it wasn't a problem.

"I quit the Forest Service for a number of reasons, but one of the main ones was the idea of "We're one big happy family; let's not let this problem get out to the public." It irked me no end. You work for a public agency, and you're not supposed to tell the public what you're doing!'

So he's been a rabble-rouser for a long time?

"You can't go through life making people love you," he says. "Or you don't create anything."

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Anything you say about a whole forest is wrong

- Critics say an Idaho think tank could be more scholarly

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