Salvage logging – a new scientific scandal

 

Doug Boucher

dboucher@hood.edu

 

Recently, a scientific scandal has broken out concerning ecological research, the timber industry, and an attempt to suppress the publication of an article in the journal Science. The scandal concerns the common practice, especially in the publically-owned National Forests of the western United States, of salvage logging. Salvage logging means cutting down trees in forests that have been affected by some sort of disturbance, such as a fire, a windstorm, or an outbreak of leaf-eating insects.

The idea of salvage logging often seems to be simply common sense: if the trees in the forest have already been damaged or killed by a disturbance, why not cut them up and use the lumber rather than simply let them rot? Thus, when a forest fire or a hurricane passes through a region, there is often political pressure to “clean it up” by removing the damaged timber. But in fact, salvage logging is not the simple straightforward practice that it seems. .

First of all, loggers and timber companies are not particularly interested in removing the damaged trees – precisely because they’re damaged. Charred, uprooted, split, twisted or insect-damaged trees are far less valuable on the market than live standing trees, so salvage logging operations do no remove all the damaged timber, and do remove some of the healthy, “green” trees. Moreover, it’s often argued that one has to salvage the damaged timber because it’s a fire hazard, but loggers prefer to take out only the large, valuable tree trunks, leaving the branches, twigs and stumps behind, sometimes even piled up by bulldozers to get them out of the way. Thus, it’s quite possible that salvage logging will increase the likelihood of catastrophic fire rather than decrease it.

Finally, there is the question of environmental impacts. What does salvage logging do to the regeneration of the fire-, wind- or insect-damaged forest? A number of scientific studies in recent years have demonstrated that salvage logging can have quite negative impacts on seedlings, saplings, soil erosion and other ecological aspects of the re-growing forest.

Thus, when ecological researchers recently found more negative environmental impacts of salvage logging in Oregon, other scientists linked to the timber industry were upset. They took the unprecedented step of trying to stop Science from publishing the results.

The study, led by Daniel Donato, a graduate student at Oregon State University’s Forestry School looked at salvage logging after the “Biscuit Fire”, which burned half a million acres in Oregon in 2002. Their research results showed that salvage logging after the fire substantially reduced the number of seedlings regenerating, while increasing the fuel loads that raise the risk of future fires.

Donato and his five co-authors wrote up their work in a short paper that they submitted to Science, and it was peer-reviewed and accepted for publication by the journal’s editors in the normal way. At this point, however, things took a dramatically different turn. The Dean and several other professors of Oregon State’s Forestry School took the unprecedented step of asking Science not to publish the already-accepted paper. And when the journal refused and went ahead and published it, the Bureau of Land Management – a federal government agency that had funded the research – announced that it would suspend Donato et al.’s grant, making it impossible for them to continue their research.

However, when the news of these attempts to put pressure on science became public, the tide of the debate shifted. Donato defended his work at hearings held by Congress and the Oregon legislature, and newspapers denounced the attempt to surpress scientific findings that the government, the timber industry and their academic allies didn’t like. The BLM backed down and agreed to continue the funding for his research. The Dean of the Forestry School, Hal Salwasser, was forced to appoint an independent committee to investigate his and the school’s own actions.

That committee has now issued its draft report, and it’s quite damning of Salwasser and his colleagues. It points out that he and the other leaders of the Forestry School, as the Portland Oregonian summarized it, ” are primarily white middle-aged males who get advice dominated by timber industry views and took the industry's side.” The report criticized “the inability of the leadership to recognize the academic freedom issues involved in their participation in the letter to Science calling for delay of the Donato et al. paper, and their coaching of groups interested in attacking the Donato et al. paper”. It also pointed out that Salwasser’s emails concerning the issue, including one referring to environmentalists as “goons”, show his close connections to the timber industry.

So, the upshot of the episode seems to have been positive. An attempt to surpress ecological findings and cut off the money that led to them, has instead turned into an embarrassing scandal for the timber industry and its academic and government supporters. But it also raises the question of whether academic freedom will always be in jeopardy, in a system in which science is so dependent on industry  for its money.


 

References

 

Donato, D. C., J. B. Fontaine, J. L. Campbell, W. D. Robinson, J. B. Kauffman, and B. E. Law. 2006. Post-Wildfire Logging Hinders Regeneration and Increases Fire Risk. Science 311:352.

 

 

Milstein, Michael. 2006. Report faults OSU forestry dean, urges reforms --  A panel cites poor judgment and urges a need for distance from timber interests. The Oregonian, 19 May 2006. Online at: http://www.oregonlive.com/search/index.ssf?/base/news/1148007324196790.xml?oregonian?lcedol&coll=7

 

 

 

 

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