Monday, June 12, 2006

A Tree Grows in Oregon...Maybe.

It has never occurred to me that I might one day write about forestry. But then again, I've written about JCAHO requirements and their impact on coffee machine placement.

My hometown newspaper published a story of some less than kosher developments in the Oregon academic community. It seems that a forestry student from Oregon State University has wondered into a thicket fraught with briars planted by politicians (and faculty from his own institution).

Daniel Donato authored a brief paper in the prestigious journal Science. His paper was about the regrowth of trees following a forest fires. His data apparently supports two controversial conclusions:
  • Postfire logging (called salvage logging) diminishes regrowth of new trees rather than augments such regrowth as is commonly asserted by the logging industry.

  • Such salvage logging increases future fire risk rather than reducing it.
Both of these conclusions run counter to logging interests which have long advocated this practice. According to the Times article, salvage logging accounts for one third of all timber sales from national forests.

Far be it for me to evaluate the science behind Donato's paper. However, the methodology and statistics were compelling enough to make it through Science's peer review process. Unfortunately, with regards to logging interests, science and peer review carries little weight. The paper has caused a firestorm (pardon the figure of speech) of discontent with several consequences:
  • Donato's research funding from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management was temporarily cut off (and was only reinstated after calls on his behalf by a Democratic congressman).

  • His department dean was subjected to a "confidence" vote for his perceived bias in handling the controversy and support of a salvage logging bill before congress.

  • Several faculty members of OSU actually attempted to block the publication of Donato's paper by Science.
I can safely say that forestry and conifer seedling regeneration are areas in which I have an unembarrassed lack of deep conviction. However, academic freedom is a subject for which I hold strong opinions.

Apparently the logging industry is very concerned that papers such as this one will be used as ammunition for lawsuits against the practice of salvage logging and it has unduly exercised its influence both in congress and over the OSU faculty and administration.

I have never heard of an incident in which faculty members have urged a scientific journal to avoid publishing a paper unless fabrication of data or plagiarism was suspected. Public debate is the accepted means of dissent that every academic is intimately familiar with. That's why journals maintain space for editorials and letters.

Daniel Donato's "colleagues" should be ashamed of their behavior and their efforts to suppress free thought. Donato's data and conclusions should be allowed to stand on their own and be subjected to appropriate debate sans the hidden agendas.

In other words, let the wood chips fall where they may.

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