Silencing science at UW: one researcher's story

  • Steve Ralph installs stream-monitoring equipment in salmon habitat

    N. Phil Peterson
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, The ax falls at the University of Washington, in a special issue about the West's forestry schools.

When the University of Washington offered aquatic biologist Steve Ralph a job in 1989 directing a major new stream-research program, he jumped at the chance. His task: Devise a first-of-its-kind monitoring program for streams around the state surrounded by industrial-scale logging.

Ralph identified the extensively logged Deschutes Basin, which drains into South Puget Sound, as an ideal research site. It had "been pretty heavily whacked by Weyerhaeuser," he says; more than 65 percent of its forests had been logged.

But Ralph reported not only to the university's Center for Streamside Studies but also to the state government - which funded the program through the Department of Natural Resources' Timber Fish Wildlife program - as well as to private industry. It soon became clear that some members of the steering committee were intent on blocking his progress.

"The most dominant player on the committee was Weyerhaeuser," he recalls. "There were five research subcommittees. Every one was headed by a Weyerhaeuser person. They were the only ones who could afford to put someone on full time. They hounded us about the scope of the statewide study and the budget; they tried to undercut us. I was constantly fighting and in conflict with Weyerhaeuser."

Even other timber industry scientists became disgusted with the way some Weyerhaeuser scientists threw their weight around, he recalls.

Still, by the summer of 1991, Ralph was making headway. The legislature had just given his project a two-year budget of $500,000 and he had 13 field workers gathering information on 300 miles of streams around the state. "We were finally close to documenting that the effect of industrial-scale logging on fish habitat was very substantial," he says.

That fall, a friend called with unexpected news: A steering committee overseeing the state's involvement in the program had taken a vote and decided to kill the project.

Forestry School Dean David Thorud won the project a temporary reprieve so Ralph could organize his data.

"We fought hard to keep that project," recalls Thorud, now acting UW provost. "It was to be a long-term research and monitoring project. It was the Department of Natural Resources that decided to terminate it. It was a tremendous waste and a big setback for the Center for Streamside Studies."

Ralph's work wasn't a total loss. He completed his analysis with funding from the Forest Service, and published the results in a Canadian journal. But he is still bitter about the experience.

"It was really a big professional insult," he says. "I don't understand why a private timber company should have so much influence over publicly funded programs."

Ralph wasn't the only researcher working for the Center for Streamside Studies who found his project abruptly terminated. Biologist Phil Peterson's study of the relationship between fish production and stream habitat change was killed without notice, ostensibly for budgetary reasons. Center director Bob Naiman received the coup de grace this year, when he was told the center's 1995-96 budget would be cut by 36 percent.

Naiman is so frustrated about the demise of the center's two major applied-research projects that he says the center will abandon state-funded applied research altogether. He says he'll seek more stable funding from such sources as the National Science Foundation.

"It's impossible to work with the Department of Natural Resources, and Timber Fish Wildlife has been taken over by the timber industry," he says. "We not only lost the money, we lost the people. I'm trying to rebuild the program now. I'm going to forget the regional issues and return to basic stream ecology."

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