The Battle of Biscuit

The Battle of Biscuit


25 April 2006

By Kera Abraham

published by

In mid-July 2002, lightning ignited five flames in southwest Oregon’s Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands, including a funny-shaped hill called Biscuit Mountain. A wind blew up from the east and the fires joined, creating a blaze that fire crews couldn’t contain. The Biscuit Fire, as it’s called, burned through 500,000 acres in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, sizzling out only with the October rains.

An unlogged area burned by the 2002 Biscuit Fire is regenerating naturally.

Where a biologically rich green forest had once been, a mostly black landscape remained. People in the local community were shaken by the blaze, some worrying about lost timber jobs, some mourning the loss of all that old-growth forest. And the question became: What are we going to do about this?

The people of Douglas County soon realized that they weren’t the only ones wondering. Turns out that most of Oregon’s state and federal legislators, more than a dozen environmental groups, the entire U.S. Forest Service, a determined crew of protesters, forestry scholars, timber companies across America, international news outlets and President Bush were asking the same question — and proposing their own answers.

Science, not spin, can best inform post-fire forest management policy decisions. But current science provides only a sketchy understanding of forests’ responses to fire. So far, less than 30 peer-reviewed studies have examined western post-fire forest ecosystems. To fill in the knowledge gaps, Biscuit’s stakeholders turn to Oregon State University’s College of Forestry (CoF), the breeding-grounds for experts nearest the burn.

What they find is a college split in two, with some faculty members suggesting that the burned old forests should be actively managed to grow back the tall firs fast and others insisting that the best course of action is to leave nature alone.

More dramatic than the rift in opinion is the scandal that has dogged the college since January, when a graduate student released a study reporting that post-fire logging can hinder forest regeneration and increase fire risk. A group of faculty members, including CoF Dean Hal Salwasser and forest engineering professor John Sessions, immediately launched a campaign to discredit the report, raising questions about academic freedom at one of the nation’s top forestry schools.

Turns out the very same lightning that started the Biscuit Fire also ignited the tension that built up like tinder in the CoF’s halls. And it’s a hot one.

The management question

The debate zooms in on specific parts of the federal forest. Most people agree that some logging is reasonable on lands legally dedicated to mixed use, where timber production is one of the goals. And few would argue in favor of logging the wilderness areas, which are legally defined as places to be left untouched by human impact. The controversy is over the old forests (LSRs), reserved under the Northwest Forest Plan for wildlife habitat, and the inventoried roadless areas, which were protected from logging by the Clinton-era Roadless Rule until the Bush administration repealed it.

Reps. Greg Walden and Peter DeFazio sparred at a Feb. 24 Congressional hearing in Medford.

The policy question: What should the Forest Service do after a fire turns a complex old forest into a newborn landscape — log and replant it to grow big conifer trees fast, or leave it alone to let nature take its course? Under the Northwest Forest Plan, the answer should be whatever action plan is best for the northern spotted owl and other mature forest species.

Soon after the Biscuit Fire, Forest Service administrators in the Siskiyou began to make their post-fire plans under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), considering action alternatives, weighing ecological and economic concerns and collecting public comments. They drafted a proposal to cut 96 million board feet of wood from mixed use lands. The most pristine parts of the Siskiyou — the wilderness areas, inventoried roadless areas and old forest reserves — would be left to recover on their own.

In July 2003, the Forest Service suddenly put the brakes on its plans in order to consider new information from a review by a team of OSU forestry professors formed by Salwasser and led by Sessions. The analysis, which came to be known as the Sessions report, estimates that more than two billion board feet of burnt timber could be cut from the Biscuit area and warns that the longer the Forest Service waits before logging, the less that timber will be worth.

Despite major gaps in that report such as the failure to consider applicable environmental regulations, the assumption that logging is permitted in protected old growth and roadless areas and the inclusion of non-merchantable burnt hardwoods in the volume estimate, Forest Supervisor Scott Conroy sent his 17-expert team of ground-pounders back to the drawing board, telling them to produce an option to cut at least a billion board feet. That led to a new plan to cut 372 million board feet, some of it from protected old forests and roadless areas.

OSU College of Forestry Dean Hal Salwasser

A flood of public opposition followed the proposal. The agency received 23,000 public comments, 95 percent of them opposed to post-fire logging, and environmental groups filed a half-dozen lawsuits challenging the plan. The Forest Service pushed ahead with logging operations anyway, despite staffing shortages and auction prices 70 percent lower than expected. By January 2005, with only 53 million board feet cut, the operation had cost taxpayers more than $14 million, according to a World Wildlife Fund report.

Protesters blocked bridges along hauling paths and environmental groups went on the attack, saying that logging a forest after wildfire is like rubbing sandpaper on a burn victim’s skin. Loggers and timber lobbyists fought back, blaming the environmental regulations for delaying the process and letting all that valuable timber go to waste.

This couldn’t go on. Everyone agreed that something had to be done. Right on cue, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) introduced a bill to make these decisions much simpler.

The legislative battle

Walden’s bill, the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act (FERRA), would allow the Forest Service to bypass the environmental and public processes required under NEPA after natural disturbances on federal forests. Walden has used the Sessions report to defend the idea that post-disturbance logging operations simply can’t wait for bureaucracy.

If FERRA as currently written becomes law, the Forest Service could bring bulldozers and chainsaws into public old-growth reserves within 30 days of a fire, flood, tornado, mudslide, avalanche, infestation, windstorm, drought or volcanic eruption — a list so inclusive it could apply to most federal forests in any given year.

College of Forestry Professor John Sessions

“If they included meteors and squirrel sneezes, they would probably cover the whole gamut,” said American Lands Alliance Director Randi Spivak, who opposes FERRA. “Walden’s legislation would elevate the emergency of dead wood to that of a national security issue.”

The law would be a huge boon to Walden’s biggest financial backer, the timber industry, which contributed $110,000 to his 2003-2004 congressional campaign. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who is introducing similar legislation in the Senate, received $227,000 from big timber during his 2001-2006 election cycle. U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who as a timber industry lobbyist co-wrote the 1995 salvage logging rider that sparked the Northwest timber wars, is also backing the bill.

So is the dean of the OSU College of Forestry. Salwasser has thrown his clout behind FERRA just as he did for the bill’s predecessor, the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA), which permitted the Forest Service to log in previously protected federal lands before wildfires. FERRA would increase harvest rates in Oregon as well as amp up forestry research funding — a potential windfall for the cash-strapped CoF.

“(FERRA) completes what HFRA began,” Salwasser told a House committee last November. Asked whether the CoF’s dependence on timber money influenced his support for FERRA, Salwasser replied, “That doesn’t come into play in my thinking.”

FERRA may have political momentum, but it isn’t about to pass without heavy congressional opposition. Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), neither of whom receive major campaign contributions from the timber industry, have attacked the bill as an ecologically irresponsible gift to the forest resource industry.

“Walden’s bill basically waives most environmental laws,” DeFazio said. “I think the overall impact — and the people in the timber industry don’t contest this — is to give total discretion to [U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary] Mark Rey to do whatever he wants on federal lands.”

To counter-punch the timber power behind Walden and Baird’s bill, DeFazio and Inslee need public opinion on their side. And for that, they need science showing that logging after natural disturbances hurts a forest’s ability to recover. Until January, they had the support of a cadre of forestry experts and a small body of scientific data, but they wanted something more specific.

They were about to get it — from the very same college whose dean was backing FERRA.

The College of Forestry

The split in opinion over post-fire federal forest management is most theatrically expressed in Peavy and Richardson halls, the main forestry buildings on the OSU campus. Dean Salwasser presides over a faculty and student body that includes hydrologists and wood product engineers, future park rangers and aspiring timber company CEOs.

College of Forestry Professor Emeritus Michael Newton

The faculty and students can be crudely divided into two major camps: those who primarily concern themselves with forests as profit generators and those who view them as ecosystems. That’s not to say that engineers who design logging roads know nothing of hydrology, or that tree breeders don’t understand wildlife ecology. But CoF students and faculty in their respective departments research the questions asked by their funding sources. And that makes all the difference.

“There has always been this tension between the pure scientists and the applied technicians at the College of Forestry,” said 1979 CoF alumnus Andy Stahl, now the director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

There seems to be consensus on one thing: The Biscuit Fire is red meat for researchers. According to Salwasser’s recent budget report, the CoF will have to make $4 million in cuts over the next two years unless it can bring in new revenue. Biscuit is one big charred piggybank, and the CoF, as the nearest forestry college, has already received hefty federal grants for ecosystem research as well as amped-up private contracts from timber interests.

In the 2004 fiscal year, 61 percent of the college’s research funding came from federal grants and contracts, 15 percent from the state’s timber harvest tax, 5 percent from private gifts and most of the rest from state and federal general funds.

So it makes practical sense that Salwasser, as steward of the college’s future, proposed making all of the Biscuit area a management experiment — with his faculty and students on the receiving end of federal research funds. But if for the past several decades the CoF has maintained a precarious equilibrium between its ecosystem- and profit-focused scholars, the Battle of Biscuit represents a tipping point in the future of forestry education.

The Donato report

In January, CoF grad student Daniel Donato released a study that gave DeFazio and Inslee scientific ammo against Walden’s bill. The research, supported by a $300,000 federal grant from the multi-agency Joint Fire Sciences Program and co-authored by CoF professors Beverly Law and Boone Kaufmann, found that two years after the Biscuit Fire, salvage logging killed 71 percent of seedlings that had sprung up after the burn and left six times more tinder on the ground than in unlogged areas. Donato submitted his report to the prestigious journal Science, which peer-reviewed it and then published it online Jan. 5.

By suggesting that salvage logging impedes forest regeneration, the Donato report contradicted FERRA’s premise that post-fire logging can aid forest recovery. “If we’re going to log for economic goals, we should be honest with ourselves and say it’s for economic reasons,” Donato told The Oregonian (“Scorched Forests Best Left Alone,” Jan. 6).

Rather than congratulating his student on publication in the nation’s most rigorous science journal, Salwasser turned his attention to “damage control.” In the days immediately following the Donato report’s publication, the dean exchanged a flurry of intense e-mails with regional and national timber industry leaders, Republican congressional staff, Forest Service employees and OSU faculty, devising strategies to play down Donato’s findings.

“We’re walking the line on academic freedom and censorship with internal review,” Salwasser wrote in a Jan. 6 e-mail to OSU President Ed Ray and OSU Government Relations Director Jock Mills. “This will be delicate to handle, but the fallout from our constituents is pretty fierce.”

Encouraged by Salwasser and Associate Dean Steve Hobbs, Sessions led a group of industry-oriented OSU faculty members — Michael Newton, Steven Tesch, Paul Adams, Steven Fitzgerald and Robin Rose — in an attempt to discredit Donato’s report and delay its print publication. They wrote a letter to Science editors attacking Donato’s methodology and findings, complaining that the student had reached overbroad conclusions, failed to identify the environmental context of his research, used unusual seedling-counting methods and ignored proper internal review protocol.

Science editors printed the Donato paper anyway. The Oregonian and other news outlets reported on Sessions’ attempt to delay it. The Bureau of Land management pulled funding for the last year of Donato’s study. Rep. Inslee called on the U.S. Inspector General to investigate the BLM’s decision. The BLM restored the funding less than a week later, but the investigation is ongoing.

Environmental groups cried foul, a cadre of OSU professors and others leapt to Donato’s defense — another flood of angry e-mails to Salwasser — and suddenly the debate seemed more about academic freedom and conflicts of interest at the CoF than on post-fire logging in the Siskiyous.

“These people have inserted themselves into the editorial process at a journal, and that is unacceptable,” said CoF emeritus professor Robert Beschta, a forest hydrologist. “I was dumbfounded when I found out what was going on.”

“In general, we are a very professional and civil group, but the way this has played out has been very unprofessional,” said CoF associate professor Beverly Law, the senior author of Donato’s report. “The internal environment has not been healthy, and it may need some time to repair.”

On Feb. 24, Walden held a congressional hearing in Medford to review the Donato report. FERRA co-sponsor Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) was particularly aggressive, challenging Donato’s academic integrity as much as his scientific methods. But Salwasser had his own turn to sweat on April 7, when state Sens. Charlie Ringo and Frank Shields held a hearing in Salem to examine questions of academic freedom at CoF.

“The flap over the Dan Donato paper highlights how close the college works with the industry,” Ringo said. “In many ways, [the college] seems designed to carry out the wishes of the industry in a way that I think is unhealthy.”

Salwasser made a public apology for allowing Sessions and his colleagues to send the incendiary letter to Science. He said he’s now concerned that the controversy over the Donato paper could hurt the CoF’s reputation.

“Looking back, I had no idea this thing was gonna blow up the way it did. I thought I was just doing a little bit of coaching,” Salwasser said. “The issue up until that point was a matter of difference of scientific method and interpretation, and all of a sudden it became and issue of infringing on academic freedom. It should not have gotten to that.”

The tipping point

The national debate over post-disturbance forest management is in volatile limbo, with political weight in Sessions’ corner and scientific momentum in Donato’s. In the short term, the Battle of Biscuit may be decided by the fate of FERRA. DeFazio recently proposed an amendment that would restrict the bill’s reach and require the Forest Service to craft action plans under the regular NEPA process before natural disturbances occur.

A Douglas fir seedling grows in the post-fire forest.

DeFazio expects FERRA to pass in the House “like a hot knife through butter,” but FSEEE Director Stahl thinks the Donato report scandal has tarnished the bill’s chances. “I have never seen a legislative campaign shoot itself in the foot as often as the Walden bill has done,” Stahl said. “By all rights, it should have sailed through Congress by now, but it’s in desperate waters. It’s because these idiots tried to shoot the messenger, and everybody said, ‘What do they have to hide?’ What they have to hide is that forests can take care of themselves. Forests don’t need managers.”

Meanwhile, the Forest Service has proposed upcoming timber sales in the roadless forests around the Siskiyou’s Klamath Wilderness, marking the agency’s first attempt to log in a federal roadless area. Gov. Ted Kulongoski protested the move, asking the agency to postpone sales until he can petition to permanently protect Oregon’s 1.9 billion roadless acres. Oregon has joined seven other states in a lawsuit challenging the Bush administration’s repeal of the Clinton-era Roadless Rule, which protected roadless federal lands from logging.

In the longer term, the winning perspective on post-fire logging may emerge in the pages of journals such as Science. If history is any example, paradigm shifts begin with scientists and scholars, then trickle down through their students. Then the tide of public understanding changes, and that shift is reflected in the halls of Congress.

The stakes on FERRA are higher than Biscuit — hotter, faster, bigger. The stakes are no less than all of America’s old and roadless federal forests, which will likely be hit with more and bigger fires, floods, storms, avalanches, mudslides, droughts and infestations as global warming reshuffles our climatic deck.

It’s open season on America’s old and roadless forests. And everybody wants a piece.

The Oxygen Collective, a group opposing the post- Biscuit Fire logging plan, will offer a free multi-media presentation reviewing the ongoing Biscuit saga at 7 pm on April 17 at 110 Willamette Hall on the UO campus.

Vested interests

Some see irony in CoF Professor John Sessions’ criticism that grad student Daniel Donato’s report, published in the journal Science, is overly political. Sessions’ own July 2003 report for the Douglas County Commissioners — which, by spawning a bill, had more influence than Donato’s, which merely weakened the case for one — contains more advocacy than science. Presented as an independent synthesis despite its timber-motivated funding source, the Sessions report was never formally peer-reviewed. It contains numerous omissions and statements unsupported by fact, yet it was used as the scientific basis for FERRA.

“It was pseudo-scientific but it was a polemic, shrilly espousing these forestry practices from the ’50s and ’60s that I thought we had left behind,” said Richard Fairbanks, former leader of the Forest Service team that drafted the Biscuit logging alternatives. “He didn’t understand the basic ecology down here.”

Sessions, who gained academic repute for his logging road designs and timber harvest models, insists that he has no allegiance to the timber industry. But he admits that he was close with late Bohemia Logging Company owner Faye Stewart. In the ’60s, when Bohemia pioneered the practice of logging by air with helium balloons, Sessions, then a forestry student, would ride around with Stewart, who called him “professor.” The title was premature but prescient — Sessions is now the CoF’s “Stewart Professor,” his position funded by the timber baron’s estate.

Sessions also works closely with Columbia Helicopters, whose choppers are used to haul logs out of roadless areas and steep hills. E-mails obtained by public records request reveal that Sessions took a flight over the Biscuit Fire area with Columbia Helicopter executives while preparing a report that would deliver the company a stream of business. In December 2003, Columbia chairman Wes Lematta’s wife donated $1 million to the CoF.

Sessions told EW that Columbia has little vested interest in post-fire logging, and that the company gets most of its business delivering water to put out wildfires. But a Jan. 6 e-mail from Columbia Vice-President of Forestry Operations Max Merlich to Dean Salwasser says otherwise. “Post catastrophic harvest is the most important part of our business,” Merlich wrote.

Sessions’ most stalwart supporter is CoF Professor Emeritus Michael Newton, who co-authored the Sessions report and joined in the attempt to derail the Donato report. Newton is credited with pioneering the now-common private forestry practice of clearcutting, re-planting with Douglas firs and then dousing the soil with herbicides to kill competing vegetation — the same strategy that the Sessions report recommends for federal forest lands burned by the Biscuit Fire.


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