Research Rattles Forestry School

by MICHAEL MILSTEIN
The Oregonian
 
It was only six paragraphs about seedlings sprouting from the ashes of the 2002 Biscuit fire, based on research by a 29-year-old graduate student at Oregon State University.
 
But the single page in a top science journal Jan. 20 proved as hot as the fire that scorched 500,000 acres of Southwest Oregon. It rattled one of the state's most prestigious colleges and threatened momentum behind a congressional bill to speed action ─ including logging ─ after fires.
 
Rep. Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican and sponsor of the bill, will hold a congressional hearing in Medford today to review the research. Witnesses will include the graduate student, Daniel Donato, and others from Oregon State's College of Forestry.
 
Past research from the college has lent support to logging and raised questions about it. Today, it puts the college, one of the top schools of its kind, at the center of a high-stakes battle between those who want burned forests cut and replaced and others who want them left alone. It also tests the boundaries of the college's links to the timber industry, which supplies a share of its funding.
 
After the Biscuit fire, some of the college's prominent professors issued a report saying huge volumes of burned timber could be salvaged as lumber if done quickly.
 
They advanced a bold premise: Logging and replanting would bring big trees back faster and reduce risk of repeat blazes. It lent support to arguments for salvaging burned trees by logging.
 
Then the study by Donato and five other scientists, including his professor, Beverly Law, stepped in the way.
They found plenty of new trees had sprouted by themselves. Logging, they found, destroyed or buried most of the seedlings while carpeting the ground with tinder. It clashed with the premise that leaders at their own school had championed.
 
They wrote up the results and sent it off to Science, the nation's leading research journal. Science published the findings.
 
It was like tossing a hand grenade into the halls of academia.
Tethered to trees
OSU's College of Forestry started about a century ago, when trees were viewed as valuable for the lumber inside them. One of its first specialties was logging engineering ─ the mechanics of getting trees out of the forest.
 
When forests such as the Tillamook burned, priority one was salvaging trees and getting new ones growing in their place.
 
The college has since grown more diverse with branches called forest resources and forest science, melting pots of experts in how forests work and how trees grow.
 
But state law tethers the school to the reality of trees as a commodity. About 10 percent of the college's funding comes from a logging tax, directed by state law toward research "to develop the maximum yield from the forestlands of Oregon."
 
The dean of the College of Forestry, Hal Salwasser, sits on the board of the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, funded by timber taxes to "enhance and provide support for the forest products industry." It spends much of its budget, which totaled about $4 million this year, on commercials showing Salwasser and others touting the value of forests.
 
OSU's obligation
The institute promotes forest stewardship, but its rules underscore the divide between Oregon's timber industry and environmental groups. Its board includes a public representative who cannot be a timber owner but who also is barred by law from being affiliated with "any organization or business known to support or promote environmental or conservation issues."
 
Land-grant universities such as OSU have an obligation to assist with economic development, Salwasser said, so they must work closely with industry ─ but remain objective.
 
"We are no more or no less related to the forest sector than engineering is to construction, or high tech or business is to business, or (veterinary medicine) or pharmacy are to their constituents," he said. "We have a duty to help them be successful in the wider public interest," including research that helps protect fish and wildlife.
 
Several professors said they have not felt pressure to issue findings that suit industry.
But the college does depend on industry, especially as state funding withers. It now faces a budget shortfall, and new funding options include more logging to raise logging tax income, or higher logging taxes.
 
Support for a tax hike "will depend on how forestland owners perceive value returned by college programs, hence our need to make sure our programs are aligned with their needs," Salwasser wrote to the college late last year.
 
Critics say that reveals a college beholden to industry.
"I don't think the role of academia should be to serve its clients," said Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist with the World Wildlife Fund in Ashland and Oregon State graduate. "It should be about creating a learning environment."
 
Timber money is not the college's only funding ─ a bigger source is government research grants and contracts, such as one that funded Donato's work. Professors at the tight-knit school also donate money toward scholarships and research, and stepped-up logging of college-owned forests provides revenue.
 
The Sessions Report
 
After the Biscuit fire, Douglas County paid the college to examine delays that surround government efforts to put burned wood up for sale.
 
Professor John Sessions, a forest engineer and expert in logging methods, led the work. Its report said trees might not return for a century or more unless foresters intervene and log, replant and control competing brush ─ restoring the forest faster for wildlife such as spotted owls.
 
Known as "the Sessions Report," it led the U.S. Forest Service to expand its logging plans.
The Oregon Forest Resources Institute issued a colorful brochure highlighting the approach, and quoting Sessions and Salwasser. It did not discuss other research, in part from the College of Forestry, that outlined the harm logging can do to burned lands.
 
Donato's report brought criticism from Sessions and others who tried unsuccessfully to derail its publication ─ causing a blowup at OSU and a rebuke from OSU's Faculty Senate. Salwasser heard criticism from state legislators, industry officials and alumni who saw the paper as a betrayal.
 
Salwasser discussed with the Society of American Foresters, an advocate of Walden's bill, ways to respond to Donato's report in the first days after its release. He now acknowledges he went farther than a college leader should have.
 
"I think there's an obligation to speak out on important issues," he said. "Where I went too far was in getting too involved in the debate."
 
Donato's paper raised enough questions about salvage logging that the Bend City Council declined to endorse Walden's bill, said Councilman John Hummel. It also prompted soul-searching about the divisions it revealed within the College of Forestry.
 
"It's been painful, but I think it's done us a good service," Salwasser said. "It reminded us that we need to maintain our objectivity."
 
Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com