When forests burn

When forests burn

5 February 2006

published by www.blueoregon.com

Oregon, USA — 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 because it conflicts directly with a study done by other faculty members. But that’s exactly what Oregon State University College of Forestry Dean Hal Salwasser 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 OSU 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 the could fuel future forest fires.

They argued that “can be counterproductive to goals of forest regeneration and fuel reduction.”

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

The Donato study was politically inconvenient because the Bush administration and Congressman Greg Walden (R-Oregon) are using the Sessions-Newton study as the basis for Walden’s latest amendments to the “Healthy Forests Act” of 2003.

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

Political inconveniences aside, we laymen have walked into the cafeteria of ideas in the middle of an academic food fight of major importance. Over the years as OSU’s College of Forestry has grown in size it has added more than traditional foresters to its faculty. OSU added engineers and ecologists. Forest engineers, like most civil engineers, like to tinker with the established order. Ecologists are trained as observers of whole natural systems and are more inclined to watch nature take its course.

Foresters trained in Oregon particularly, get their orthodoxy from the history of the Tillamook Burn. This legendary forest fire erupted in August 1933 in the Coast Range between Tillamook and Forest Grove and 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 the only way to treat burned-over forests. You hear the echoes in the Sessions-Newton report.

Ecologists and younger foresters have a different experience. They study the Warner Creek Fire in 1991 in the Willamette National Forest where aggressive salvage logging was specifically limited because of the steep slopes. Studies show a more diverse forest regenerating without salvage logging and aggressive hand planting of commercial tree species.

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 forest regeneration 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 systematically debunked the prevailing orthodoxy 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 H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Willamette National Forest east of Eugene.

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

Franklin and his many colleagues learned reality was just the opposite. It was newly sterilized and replanted clearcuts that were the biological deserts, while the old growth forest was the most biologically diverse part of the forest. Franklin has never been forgiven by some of his colleagues for disproving the prevailing orthodoxy. Franklin’s findings are the foundation of today’s forest ecosystem management.

Daniel Donato and his colleagues just may be in the process of doing to salvage logging what Jerry Franklin did to clearcutting. Donato will get his chance as long as OSU’s College of Forestry is administered by people like Hal Salwasser who are willing to let science go where science will go and are not afraid to get up in public and admit they are wrong from time to time.


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