Each year, faculty and students in the College of Forestry and other colleges at Oregon State University conduct numerous research studies on critical forest-related issues important to Oregon, the nation, and the world. In the College of Forestry, there is a long tradition of conducting problem-solving research.
Most often, the scientific community makes progress on critical, complex problems by conducting numerous research studies carried out by different scientists over many years. Occasionally, preliminary results or research results from a single study relevant to a controversial, highly visible issue become general public knowledge before the complete scientific process is through. This can intensify public discussion and positioning before adequate scientific debate and further research can confirm, modify, disprove or place the results in the appropriate context.
The recent Sciencexpress paper on some effects of salvage logging following the Biscuit Fire, later to appear in the journal Science and authored by one of our graduate students and his colleagues in OSU's Colleges of Agricultural Science and Forestry and the USDA Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station, is a case in point. (Summary of study was published Jan. 11 in the Eagle.)
When single-study, short-term research results on a highly charged issue are controversial within the scientific community, it is important that scientific debate occur on the full body of pertinent knowledge and that additional research be conducted if needed before drawing general conclusions is appropriate. It is imperative that major policy decisions be made based on that full body of available research and after thorough scientific dialogue and review.
Regardless of its merits, any single study done by individual faculty members does not represent the consensus view of the College of Forestry. Some faculty with relevant expertise and experience in forest ecosystems in Southwest Oregon disagree with some of the conclusions reported in the Science paper and they are preparing their response to it. In essence, the controversy is not about what the study found regarding seedling survival and surface fuels; it revolves around the general conclusions reached or the extrapolation of field data from a two-year study on a limited range of sites and a limited set of post-fire activities to a much broader policy issue. That issue is whether to log fire killed trees, actively reduce slash created by logging, replant with seedlings and follow up with management activities to accelerate the regrowth of a conifer-dominated forest following fire. The Science study only examined effects on surface fuels and seedling survival of logging dead trees two to three years after the fire or not logging.
The first principles of natural forest regeneration processes, vigor of competition, opportunities to apply logging tools to meet silvicultural objectives, and pros and cons of slash management strategies in Southwest Oregon and elsewhere are well known and well established in the scientific literature. If additional research and scientific debate are needed to resolve the controversy surrounding post-fire salvage logging and forest restoration, then that research should extend the studies reported in Science for additional years to examine long-term impacts of slash treatments, planting seedlings, and managing or not managing competition from shrubs and hardwoods. The studies should also be extended to include sites on private lands where salvage logging occurs immediately after the fire is out, slash is cleaned up shortly thereafter, seedlings planted the following growing season, and competing vegetation managed to favor planted and naturally regenerating conifers.
Controversy in science is not new and is not necessarily a bad thing. The highly focused attention that controversy attracts often works to intensify scientific efforts to resolve the issue. The Science paper may achieve this. We hope it does. It has not ended the debate over salvage logging and active reforestation, it has merely rekindled it.
From the research described in the Science paper, one might ask: What are the consequences of federal agency policies and processes that delay salvage logging and appropriate silvicultural operations for various lengths of time following wildfire? For the results reported in the Science paper, study sites in the 2002 Biscuit Fire were salvage logged in 2004 and 2005. What would have been the results had they been logged in fall 2002 before natural regeneration had occurred and when fire-killed trees had maximum economic value to pay for subsequent reforestation, or in 2003, and followed with silvicultural operations appropriate to encourage the kind of forest conditions called for in management plans?
Because there are differences in the scientific community over how post-fire logging and reforestation studies should be designed and interpreted, including in our own college, you can expect to see those differences show up in the scientific literature and in various media. This will not necessarily resolve scientific controversy on this issue. Only long-term, well designed, replicated field studies, such as the historic FIR program, paired watershed studies currently under way at Hinkle Creek, and the post-fire research called for in Rep. Greg Walden's Forest Ecosystem Recovery and Research Act bill, will ultimately resolve the scientific issues.
Even if those studies occur, science will not decide the policy choice: whether to salvage log and reforest or not. That choice is not a scientific issue. It is a choice that must reflect public policy in the case of public lands and the desires of forestland owners in the case of private lands.
The proper role of science is to help inform people on the possibilities and consequences of those choices and to do that the science must be thorough and well tested. It is not the role of science to tell people what those choices should be.
Hal Salwasser, is the dean of the Oregon State University College of Forestry. He can be reached at Hal.Salwasser@oregonstate.edu