Oregon’s academic food fight in the cafeteria of ideas

 

It isn’t often an academic dean gets up in public and apologizes for participating in an effort to suppress the work of a graduate student. But that’s exactly what Oregon State University College of Forestry Dean Hal Salwasser recently did.

"I profoundly regret the negative debate that recent events have generated," he wrote in a letter to the college. Salwasser went further and said he should have congratulated the graduate student, Daniel Donato, for having his research published in the journal Science.

Donato and five Oregon State University and U.S. Forest Service scientists concluded that logging in the Biscuit Burn in southern Oregon damaged seedlings growing back on their own and littered the forest floor with tinder that could fuel future fires.

The Donato study conflicts with an earlier study conducted by Oregon State academic heavyweights John Sessions and Mike Newton. They concluded that salvage logging and reforestation after the Biscuit Burn could regenerate the forest faster than natural methods.

The Donato study was politically inconvenient because the Bush administration and Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden used the Sessions-Newton study as the basis for Walden’s latest amendments to the "Healthy Forests Act" of 2003.

Salwasser joined other faculty members in pressuring Science not to publish the Donato findings. But the editors at Science had sent the Donato paper though their peer review process and said they had no reason not to publish the article. It appeared in the Jan. 20, 2006 issue.

Political inconveniences aside, we laymen have walked into the middle of an academic food fight of major importance. Over the years, as Oregon State’s College of Forestry has grown in size, it has added more than traditional foresters to its faculty. It has welcomed engineers and ecologists, and both like to tinker with the established order.

Ecologists are trained as observers of whole natural systems and are more inclined to let nature take its course. Foresters trained in Oregon get their orthodoxy from the history of the Tillamook Burn. This legendary forest fire erupted in August 1933 in the Coast Range, and it burned about 240,000 acres.

More seriously, the Burn caught fire again and again, every six years until 1951 — it was called the six-year jinx — despite the best efforts of foresters to fireproof the original burn. The problem was finally solved, after many missteps, by aggressively logging all standing burned timber, toppling snags, sweeping the forest floor of all fuels and aggressively hand-planting seedlings.

This practice became orthodoxy — the only way to treat burned-over forests. You hear the echoes in the Sessions-Newton report.

Ecologists and younger foresters look to a different experience. They study the Warner Creek Fire in 1991, in the Willamette National Forest, where salvage logging was specifically limited because of the steep slopes. Studies show a more diverse forest regenerating without salvage logging.

So who’s right? It’s fair to say the jury isn’t in yet. The Donato study alone doesn’t prove the thesis that salvage logging is worse for bringing back a forest than a decision to leave the area unlogged. Indeed, supporters of the Sessions-Newton study say they will write a critique for Science magazine and try to discredit Donato’s work.

Donato deserves more respect than that. Donato’s work is reminiscent of another scientist who debunked the prevailing creed of forest management — Dr. Jerry Franklin.

Franklin, who is now finishing a distinguished career at the University of Washington College of Natural Resources, spent more than 40 years studying old-growth forests, primarily in the Willamette National Forest, east of Eugene.

When Franklin began his research, it was an article of faith with foresters that old-growth forests had ceased to grow. Old-growth forests were "dead, dying and decadent," biological deserts that had to be logged to make room for "vigorous young forests," brimming with biological diversity.

Franklin and his many colleagues learned that reality was just the opposite. It was newly sterilized and replanted clear-cuts that were the biological deserts, while an old-growth forest was the most biologically diverse. Franklin has never been forgiven by some of his colleagues. Yet Franklin’s findings are the foundation of today’s forest management.

Daniel Donato and his colleagues just may be in the process of doing to salvage logging what Jerry Franklin did to clear-cutting.

Russell Sadler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Eugene, Oregon.

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