Critics say an Idaho think tank could be more scholarly

  • Jay O'Laughlin

    Gerry Snyder/Forest, Wildlife & Range Experiment Station

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, Two views of forest health at the University of Idaho, in a special issue about the West's forestry schools.

Controversy comes with the territory in Jay O'Laughlin's job. He directs the University of Idaho's Policy Analysis Group, which is charged with explaining natural resource issues to Idaho's lawmakers.

While the state-funded group has support among the legislators as well as the allegiance of its dean, it has been plagued with charges of industry bias since it was formed in 1989.

At early meetings of the group's advisory board, three non-members - representatives of Idaho's sheep ranching, logging and farming industries - showed up regularly, proposing issues to be considered by the board and once screening a controversial report before it went to the legislature. A university wildlife biologist threatened to remove his name from a report on wolf reintroduction after then-dean John Hendee asked a range scientist to review it, reportedly to assuage the fears of Idaho ranchers.

When the Lewiston Morning Tribune criticized the university in an editorial called "Is UI think tank to be scholar or streetwalker?" the university changed its approach, publicly advertising the meetings of its advisory board and inviting the Idaho Conservation League to send a representative.

Then the forest health report came out in December 1993, saying that Idaho's forests are in bad shape, and they can be helped with intensive forestry - thinning dense stands, using prescribed fire, encouraging the growth of resilient tree species, and using salvage logging to reduce the danger of fire.

It was popular with the timber industry and its political allies but it enraged environmentalists, who saw it as political ammunition for "getting the cut out." Meanwhile, some scientists attacked the report's academic credibility, charging that it limited itself almost entirely to tree health while barely touching on the well-being of other parts of the ecosystem, such as wildlife. The report relied on Forest Service inventory data, which focuses on wood volume.

"If the data were there we could have done a lot more," says policy group wildlife biologist Jim McCracken. "(The report has) been controversial because of the idea that we needed to intensely manage the situation. A lot of people see that as a scheme to get the cut out. And the Forest Service may use it for that, and private timber may go along with it."

O'Laughlin calls the report "a major contribution in getting people to talk about the topic," and says he doesn't see how the group could have done the report differently. "It just so happens the Forest Service has been keeping better track of the conditions of trees than anything else," he says. "We don't have the resources, time-wise or financial, to collect new data." He adds that although the report says very clearly that while trees are the defining component of forest ecosystems, they aren't the most important component.

Although some faculty think the Policy Analysis Group is doing a good job, there have been persistent rumblings among others that it doesn't adequately incorporate the comments of its reviewers into the final reports.

"There's been no quality control, no checks and balances on it," said one professor. "If there's a lot of sloppy science going around, all it does is feed political conflicts and fires. So you need good science. You need good peer review."

And when O'Laughlin appeared on an Idaho Forest Products Commission television spot which advocated managing the forest to prevent fires, he inflamed his critics even more. Although his comments were limited to simple historical facts about forests, he says he regrets making the appearance because of the controversy it caused. Yet he strongly supports the objective of the commission - "to promote education on balanced use of forest resources" with funding from the forest products industry.

The group is currently working on its final draft of a report on the Endangered Species Act - which O'Laughlin calls "by far the most contentious' yet. Reviews of the first draft varied wildly. Bill Wall, a wildlife biologist with a timber company, the Potlatch Corporation, said it had "a pro-ESA/pro-biodiversity undertone," but is fair "and does present multiple views ..." But fisheries biologist Merritt Tuttle wrote that it provided "a manifesto to justify further destruction of Idaho's salmon ... Where are the positive or neutral implications (of the act?) Why does the draft present one side of the issue?"

Tuttle, who recently retired as senior policy analyst with the National Marine Fisheries Service, wrote, "As I reviewed the draft, I had to keep telling myself that - unbelievably - it was prepared under the auspices of a university ... the approach used in the draft is misleading, deceitful and unprofessional."

The final version is expected out soon, and after 12 months and a pair of reviews by two dozen reviewers, O'Laughlin says it will bear little resemblance to the first draft.

Charles Hatch, dean of the College of Forestry, Wildlife and Range, will have the group's work evaluated by outside consultants later this year. But he says he has no problem with the controversy its reports have generated.

"I think the PAG has tried very hard to provide factual, unbiased information," he says. "It's been successful in doing so. (O'Laughlin) is trying to stick to the facts as completely as possible."

O'Laughlin says he still likes his job. "It's a tremendous challenge," he says. "The fact is we fall short of some people's expectations. That's the nature of research. You do the best you can with the resources you have."

High Country News Classifieds