« Forest Service and BLM to Sell Off Thousands of Acres | Main | Norton's out, who's next? »

February 27, 2006

Biscuit Salvage Study Controversy Won't Die

We first aired the Donato study controversy, what we might call The Donato Affair, on January 12

Since then the controversy has morphed and moved, but won't go away. Here is the latest from The Washington Post .

In Fire's Wake, Logging Study Inflames Debate
University Study Challenges Cutting Of Burnt Timber
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2006; Page A03

…Logging after the Biscuit fire, the study found, has harmed forest recovery and increased fire risk. What the short study did not say -- but what many critics of the Bush administration are reading into it -- is that the White House has ignored science to please the timber industry. The study is consistent with research findings from around the world that have documented how salvage logging can strip burned forests of the biological diversity that fire and natural recovery help protect.

The study also questions the scientific rationale behind a bill pending in Congress that would ease procedures for post-fire logging in federal forests. This, in turn, has annoyed the bill's lead sponsor, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who has received far more campaign money from the forest products industry than from any other source, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Logging after fires is becoming more and more important to the bottom line of timber companies. It generates about 40 percent of timber volume on the nation's public lands, according to Forest Service data compiled by the World Wildlife Fund, and accounts for nearly half the logging on public land in Oregon.

But there is much more to the dispute than money. The Oregon State study was published in Science, the prestigious peer-reviewed journal. It appeared after a group of professors from the university's College of Forestry, which gets 10 percent of its funding from the timber industry, tried to halt its publication.

Professors behind the failed attempt to keep the article out of Science had earlier written their own non-peer-reviewed study of the Biscuit fire -- a study embraced by the Bush administration and the timber industry. It said post-fire logging and replanting were exactly what was needed to speed growth of big trees and suppress fire.

A couple of weeks after the Science article appeared and infuriated the forest industry, the federal Bureau of Land Management, which footed the bill for the study of the Biscuit fire, cut off the final year of the three-year, $300,000 grant. BLM officials said the authors violated their funding contract by attempting to influence legislation pending in Congress.

After the cutoff, Democrats in the Northwest congressional delegation complained about government censorship, academic freedom and the politicization of science in the Bush administration. Within a week, the BLM backed down and restored the grant.

Oregon State University has officially scolded the forestry professors for inappropriate behavior and praised the authors of the Science article.
Still, the issue is far from over.

On Friday here in Medford, there was a field hearing of the House subcommittee on forests and forest health, which is chaired by Walden, chief sponsor of the forest recovery bill that was cast in a dim light by the Science article.

In this corner of Oregon, where environmentalists and logging interests have been jousting for decades, jawboning about forest policy is a spectator sport. The hearing, held in Medford City Hall, was so packed with spectators that the fire marshal insisted it could begin only after he delivered a stern lecture on emergency exits.

The hearing's star witness -- and principal punching bag -- was Daniel Donato, lead author of the Science article and a graduate student at Oregon State's forestry school. By at least a decade, he was the youngest participant in the hearing. Rail thin and wearing neatly pressed khakis, he looked even younger.
Walden accused Donato, 29, of having failed to tell his federal research supervisor about the findings of his study, as is required by the terms of his research contract with the federal government. Donato conceded that he had not known about the requirement for consultation and that he knows more about it now.

Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), another member of the subcommittee and a co-sponsor of the forest recovery bill, was even more disgruntled. He charged Donato with a long list of professional failings and character flaws, including "deliberate bias," lack of humility and ignorance of statistical theory.
Donato smiled nervously through these attacks and politely -- but firmly -- told the hearing that his article was solid on its facts and fair in its conclusions. He also said the forest study should not be viewed as, nor was it intended to be, the final word on post-fire logging.

After Donato was excused, one of the nation's best-known forest ecologists attempted to summarize the world's collective scientific knowledge on logging after fires. Jerry Franklin, a professor of ecosystem science at the University of Washington's College of Forest Resources, warned the hearing that Congress should be careful not to prescribe salvage logging as a cure-all for every forest fire.

Salvage logging and replanting can often succeed, Franklin said, if the intent is to turn a scorched landscape into a stand of trees for commercial harvest.

If, however, Congress wants to promote the ecologically sound recovery of burned federal forests, Franklin said, the overwhelming weight of scientific research suggests that "salvage logging is not going to be appropriate." {emphasis added}

More information can be found at the Red Lodge Clearinghouse.

Here are the papers from the Feb. 24 Congressional Field Oversight Hearing.
And below are excerpts from Jerry Franklin's testimony:

...The results provided by Donato et al. (2006), for example, should not have surprised anyone. The negative impacts of post-fire logging on natural regeneration have been reported in many past studies, including one conducted on the Tillamook Burn by the guru of Douglas-fir management, Leo A. Isaac (Isaac and Meagher 1938).

Biological legacies are a key factor contributing to rapid ecological recovery (Franklin et al. 2000). The concept of biological legacies emerged from research at Mount St. Helens but it is applicable to essentially all disturbance types. Biological legacies consist of living organisms, organic matter, and organically-created patterns that persist from the pre-disturbance ecosystem and strongly influence the development of the post-disturbance ecosystem. Living legacies are extremely diverse in form and often abundant, typically ranging from spores and seeds to large trees and sexually mature animals. Legacies of organic matter are also abundant since trees and other plants are killed but very little organic matter is actually consumed or removed in natural disturbances, including intense wildfires. Legacies of organic matter are most apparent in the concentrated forms of standing dead trees (snags) and downed boles (logs), material often referred to as coarse wood.

Snags, logs, and other coarse wood are biological legacies of extraordinary significance to ecological recovery, second only to surviving trees. The literature on the ecological role of coarse wood is immense; Harmon et al. (2004) and Maser et al. (1988) provide excellent entry points into this literature. The functions of such material are many. Logs and snags provide critical habitat for probably ½ to 2/3 of forest animal life (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates). Coarse wood is a long-term source of energy and nutrients but, unlike other organic matter, coarse wood is also a site for nitrogen fixation. Coarse wood has significant direct physical influences on geomorphic and hydrologic processes, such as erosion, sediment deposition, and the physical structure of stream and river ecosystems. Residual wood structures significantly modify the microclimatic regime of the disturbed site, which is important in lifeboating diversity and in facilitating the establishment of natural tree reproduction.

Logs, snags and other wood persist and progressively play these and other roles for many decades and even centuries, particularly in the case of larger and more decay-resistant wood and in the case of aquatic ecosystems. Furthermore, where a stand-replacement disturbance has occurred, the resulting pulse of large wood in the form of snags and logs is all of the coarse wood that the recovering ecosystem is going to get for the next 60 to 80 years or more—i.e., until the new forest is large enough to begin generating large snags and logs on its own (Spies 1988). In part, this is the basis for my comment in earlier testimony that, from an ecological perspective, it is better to harvest living trees from an intact forest than to remove dead trees from an intensely burned site.

Ecological science also provides substantial insight into landscape-level issues that need to be considered in any type of post-disturbance management activity, such as ecological impacts of logging (e.g., Lindenmayer and Franklin 2002). All parts of a landscape are not created equal. The special importance of riparian habitats in a forest landscape exemplifies this principle. As another example, post-fire logging programs that are selectively focused on portions of the landscape with high residual wood volumes can have a disproportionately high impact on overall ecological conditions within the disturbed landscape, even though the activity directly impacts only a small percentage of the total area. The potential is there to effectively “high grade” a large disturbed landscape by logging the majority of the areas with abundant large legacies.

Research on natural forest disturbances has also shown that post-disturbance landscapes are important sites for many biota and important ecological processes, such as nitrogen fixation. Because such areas have a rich array of structural legacies and are free of dominance by tree canopies, very high levels of biological diversity are often present in the form of animal, plant and fungal species as well as diverse plant life forms. Forest guru Leo A. Isaac noted such qualities based on his observations in the Tillamook Burn (Isaac 1963). Such naturally-disturbed early-successional habitats are very different from clearcuts in structure, composition, and duration.

The naturally recovering portions of the Mount St. Helens blast zone provide graphic evidence that such areas can be regional hotspots of biological diversity, as exemplified by the extraordinary species diversity and population levels of amphibians, birds, small mammals, and meso-predators found in this landscape (Dale et al. 2005). Such richness of organisms and processes is not to be found within the reforested portions of the Mount St. Helens region although these dense young forests are producing a lot of wood. This contrast makes explicit the importance of management objectives for a disturbed area.

Resource managers do have much knowledge and experience with post-disturbance landscapes but there has been relatively little systematic research on impacts of post-fire logging. Moreover, some of the science described as relevant has limitations. We cannot assume that research focused on solving regeneration problems following timber harvesting in southwestern Oregon are directly applicable to conditions or to management objectives on naturally disturbed areas in the Biscuit Burn. As I hope we have all learned--clearcuts are not just like wildfires! To which I would add, what is good for timber production may not be good for many other forest values. ...

Posted by Dave on February 27, 2006 at 11:12 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Biscuit Salvage Study Controversy Won't Die:


Posted by: wes

You are right, it did not die. Just today, the House Resources Committee announced that they would "mark up" a new bill called the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act of 2005 HR 4200. Announement at http://resourcescommittee.house.gov/Press/releases/2006/0314FERRAmarkup.htm

This bill seems to be designed to go full steam ahead with just the sort of recover program that the Oregon State Study warned against. On the Resources Commitee site, there is are reference to a long list of studies that are quoted to support salvage logging and to suggest the leaving the area alone was absolutely the wrong thing to do.

While the fact that Greg Walden conducted a hearing in Oregon was mentioned, the results and testimony from that hearing is not referenced.

wes | Mar 14, 2006 11:28:15 AM

Posted by: Forrest Fleischman

Apparently this paper has been out for a few weeks, but I just found out about it today:


It is the official position of the Society for Conservation Biology's North American Section on Management Policies for fire-prone forests in the western United States. It is written by heavyweights (Reed Noss, Jerry Franklin, William Baker, Tania Schoennagel and Peter Moyle), and provides probably the best short summary of scientific information on salvage logging and related issues that I have seen.

In other news: yesterday, the house Resources Committee failed to complete mark-up on HR 4200, and a new mark-up for the bill is yet to be scheduled. Rumor is that the "Donato affair," along with the high levels of scientific criticisms of the bill, are a major factor in this slow-down.

Forrest Fleischman | Mar 16, 2006 11:10:17 AM

Posted by: celeste pinheiro

Hi, just curious if you've spent time in the Tillamook? Seen what's there in that salvaged/replanted forest? It's too bad everything's so polarized, the best answer is probably in the middle. I'd appreciate if you could point me to a study on the success (or not) of the Tillamook as an example of rebuilding a forest done recently(70 years after the fact). It seems that studies done a few years into regeneration don't really have much to go on--it takes years upon years to build a forest or to evaluate "success", and the Tillamook is probably our best example that is finally growing up into being truly evaluated. I'm just a nobody as far as degrees are concerned, but I have spent a lot of time creeping around the Tillamook bush, and knowing what that bush sprang forth from, I'm amazed at what it's accomplished in a few short years(in "forest years").

celeste pinheiro | Feb 27, 2007 3:56:54 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.