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A Student's Forest Paper Sparks One Hot Debate

June 11, 2006|Bettina Boxall and Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writers

SELMA, Ore. — During tedious days of counting tiny Douglas fir seedlings on blackened slopes west of here, Daniel Donato never imagined his work would put him in the crosshairs of Congress. He was just studying how forests grow back after a fire.

But after his research appeared in the online version of the journal Science in January, the Oregon State University graduate student began to feel like a lightning rod. A federal agency briefly yanked funding for his project, irate politicians and timber interests e-mailed Donato's dean to complain, congressmen grilled him, and professors at his own university tried unsuccessfully to keep the paper from being published in the print edition of Science.

His principal finding -- that post-fire logging hindered forest regrowth -- was hardly revolutionary. But the study, with Donato as lead author, was published just as Congress was considering legislation to make it easier for timber companies to undertake salvage logging of dead trees after fires on federal land. That bill, backed by the Bush administration and recently passed by the House, is based on an underlying assumption that burned forests recover more quickly if they are logged and then replanted.

Donato's results provided ammunition to the bill's opponents -- and more broadly to environmentalists fighting salvage logging, which makes up roughly a third of the timber sales from national forests across the country. They argue that dead trees provide not only wildlife habitat, but the nourishment for a new forest that will ultimately provide a richer, more diverse ecosystem. That is anathema to timber advocates, who see dead wood left to rot unharvested as not only counterproductive but a waste of resources.

Donato, 29, and his five co-authors knew they were entering a fraught debate. Still, the reaction has stunned them.

"It's a one-page research note," Donato said, referring to the paper published in Science. "It's not that earth-shattering, and it really would be very easy to put the paper in context and sort of almost trivialize it.

"Instead," he said, "it's been turned into this giant political thing. It just blows me away. I never anticipated that."

The seedling paper exploded from the often-insular world of academic research onto the national stage at a time of growing acrimony between scientists and government policy makers, who've been accused of ignoring and suppressing research that doesn't fit their agendas.

The collision of politics, business and science is vividly highlighted in hundreds of e-mail exchanges obtained and publicly released by a Democratic Oregon state senator. They place Oregon State Forestry Dean Hal Salwasser -- a former U.S. Forest Service official who has publicly advocated the salvage bill -- at the center of efforts to counter the paper.

"Nice Work!" Oregon state Senate Republican leader Ted Ferrioli sarcastically declared in an e-mail to the dean. Such research, he wrote, amounted to "rifle shots politically directed at resource producers and timber-dependent communities."

Columbia Helicopters Inc. Vice President Max Merlich complained to Salwasser: "The likelihood of this paper being used successfully against us in court on salvage logging litigation is very high.

"How OSU handles this from this point on could play an important part on our issues," said Merlich, whose Oregon based-company hauls logs by helicopter out of steep or remote sites in national forest timber sales, much of it in salvage projects.

Merlich's comments could not be easily ignored by the College of Forestry, which gets 12% of its research funding from state timber receipts. Columbia describes itself as the largest helicopter logging operation in the world. Three years ago, the wife of Columbia's co-founder donated $1 million to the college for an endowed professorship.

The company largesse also reaches into politics. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Columbia and its executives have given more than $300,000 to state and federal GOP committees and candidates, including some $22,000 to the Republican author of the salvage bill.

In an interview with The Times, the dean said he did not quibble with Donato's data but said the authors had overreached in their interpretation. "They found what they found," Salwasser said. "The whole argument is over the conclusions they made."

Nonetheless, his alliances are clear in the e-mails. In one message to a lumber company employee, he called anti-logging activists "scam artists" and "goons" and said their appeals and lawsuits are a variation on Mafia "protection" tactics.

Salwasser has since been faulted for his handling of the controversy by a college committee, which in a draft report last month cited the e-mails and said he had engaged in inappropriate behavior. A no-confidence vote was held last week in the college. Through a university spokesman, Salwasser declined to comment on the committee's work.

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