Applied science 

Does the Forest Service pick and choose its research that fits its agenda?

A Forest Service plan to salvage log as much as 280 million board-feet from the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) continues to generate controversy for many citizens, and more recently, some scientists. A panel of local scientists from both the USDA Forest Service and the University of Montana met at the Boone and Crockett Club last week to discuss the ecological implications of the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that outlines options for salvage logging on the BNF. The meeting was organized by the Bitterroot Restoration Coalition, and hosted by a consortium of environmental groups.

The tone of the proceedings was cordial, but the presentations of more than one panelist conflicted sharply with information the Forest Service included—and in one case, excluded—from their draft EIS.

Len Broberg, a professor of environmental studies at UM, showed up with a big purple and blue map showing areas where proposed alternatives are encroaching on inventoried roadless areas. According to Broberg’s findings, the Forest Service contention that no roadless areas would be affected by the proposed huge operation is simply false. The largest alternative in the Forest Service’s draft alternative, which would put the cut to 79,000 acres, would affect some 28,000 acres of roadless land. Additionally, some 17,000 acres of sensitive riparian areas—prime habitat for bull trout and west slope cutthroat trout—would be affected. Applying Broberg’s findings to the BNF’s more modest proposals, logging 22,000 acres would still have an impact on some 9,800 acres of roadless land. “This plan is not staying out of roadless areas,” concludes Broberg.

Other panelists were less contentious, but presented viewpoints that seemed to imply the Forest Service ought to proceed with greater caution. One of the Forest Service’s own scientists, Dr. Jack Cohen of the Intermountain Fire Research Lab in Missoula, studies how manmade structures fare in fires in the urban-wildland interface. After studying last year’s disaster in Los Alamos, among other sites, Dr. Cohen’s concludes that the removal of fuels—either thousands of feet or thousands of miles from a home site—has little bearing on how the fire will behave around a vacation home or double-wide. Instead, his findings indicate that the materials that went into building the structure, as well as the 40 or so meters surrounding it, have virtually everything to do with whether it will catch fire.

“We can physically separate the threat to homes from the rest of our ecological issues,” said Cohen. “Our fire environment [where people have built things] is currently incompatible with the fire ecosystem. We don’t have a choice about fire occurrence. But we do have a choice about the existence of ignitable homes,” Cohen concludes.

While conclusions drawn from a timber meeting organized by environmental groups may be foregone, the panelists raised a fundamental question: Just whose science is the BNF using, and does it include a broad enough spectrum of opinions so that timber managers and citizens have the opportunity to make informed decisions?

Craig Bobzien thinks that the BNF is doing fine with regard to its science. As one of the BNF’s rangers, and BNF Forest Supervisor Rodd Richardson’s point man on the salvage sale issue, Bobzien has spent a fair amount of time this month in meetings like the one last week at the Boone and Crockett Club.

“One of the things we’re charged with doing is keeping up on the state of knowledge on these issues, and implementing that knowledge,” says Bobzien. “What is difficult is all the different kinds of science out there. Then there’s the social science aspect of it, where you have to start plugging human feelings into the equation. One of the panelists said it best: The devil is really in the details.

“In some cases though, even when we try to borrow from the leading research, it seems we’re making decisions in the dark. For instance, there’s no science that demonstrates re-burn potential in areas where there is downed wood or decayed wood. We’re also charged with quantifying the value of that wood in economic terms. Of course, this plan is not aimed at any short-term effect. We’re trying to address the question, ‘What will the legacy of fuels be in the Bitterroot in 25 to 30 years?’”

One legacy, according to one of Bobzien’s colleagues on the BNF, could be severely impacted soils. Ken McBride is the senior soil scientist for the BNF, and has some fairly strong scientific opinions on whether or not conventional large-scale logging ought to be allowed in post-fire forests.

Oddly enough, McBride was not chosen to be a part of the BNF’s interdisciplinary team for the draft EIS his employer recently published for public review. The reason he was given was that a forest-wide soil survey McBride has been working on has priority over providing soil data for a salvage logging proposal, gargantuan though the sale might be. “It’s a legitimate call,” says McBride. Opportunities for these types of projects don’t last forever.”

Nonetheless, McBride felt strongly enough that he submitted comments for the draft EIS as a private citizen rather than as a Forest Service employee. His comments outline the compacted, damaged soils he’s encountered over the past several years on the BNF, which are the result not of severe burns but of logging activity. McBride describes the detrimental effects to Bitterroot soils of a half-century’s worth of logging: soils stripped of their biologically active layers through erosion, compaction, and removal by heavy equipment.

“It is quite disheartening to keep digging my test pits and finding such high levels of soil damage,” McBride’s testimony reads. “I think the extent of this damage can only be appreciated when a person goes out day after day, unit after unit, sale after sale and finds the same disturbed soil conditions.”

McBride is hardly a hardcore tree hugger, writing in his testimony that he supports “a modest degree of harvest of dead trees.”

“But I also have concerns that if this is not done with a very light touch on the land, the risks of substantial soil and watershed damage likely will increase greatly,” he writes.

Over the phone, McBride reiterates his concern for large-scale timber operations in the BNF. “I’m trying to do what I feel needs to be done, and I’m going to be open and honest about it,” he says. “I’m sure [the Forest Service] is not happy about things I’ve said. And I know I’m slowing the wagon down a bit. But the agency in this area has jumped on a certain way of thinking, treating burned and unburned fuels in a hurry, and we may be overreacting quite a bit.”

McBride also points out that the risk of re-burn—that is, a patch of forest than burns twice in short succession, and an area where there is a dearth of scientific research—is less a factor than the inevitable soil damage caused by logging. “Logging is a disturbance to the soil,” says McBride. “The soils around here are pretty fragile to begin with, and now you have these multiple layers of disturbance with logging and development and fire. Adding another layer at this point may not be the best thing to do.”

Bobzien maintains that there’s nothing unusual about McBride submitting his comments as a citizen rather than a BNF employee. “Any Forest Service employee is free to comment as a citizen on any of our projects, and if you looked at the record, I’m sure you’d find it happens quite frequently,” he contends.

Still, a senior soil scientist submitting testimony based on data he collected on Forest Service time as one of their staff scientists is a bit odd. It’s worth noting that the BNF chose for its interdisciplinary team a scientist with no experience in soil matters.

While both McBride and Bobzien concur that there is no conspiracy at work, an agency-wide pattern of missing out on some of the best science available seems to pervade. McBride has twenty years’ experience as a soil scientist, many of them on the BNF. In contrast, the current soil scientist in the interdisciplinary team has a few month’s experience. Other scientists aren’t surprised.

“The Forest Service has been one of the last organizations to look at benefits of new information,” says Dr. Cohen of the Intermountain Fire Research Lab. “There’s this reluctance on the part of operations to keep up and fully embrace [scientific findings].”

Bobzien acknowledges that such organizational shortcomings may have an element of truth to them, and cribs a quote from former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas, now a forestry professor at the U of M. “Scientists propose,” says Bobzien, “and managers dispose.”

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