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Objections at OSU to a graduate student's research on forest recovery

ignite a scholarly dustup


Friday, January 20, 2006



The Oregonian


A contingent of professors at Oregon State University's College of

Forestry want the nation's top scientific journal to withhold a study

by an OSU graduate student who found that forests best recover from

wildfires when they are not logged and left alone.


The issue of the journal Science including the study is due out

today, and Donald Kennedy, its top editor, said there is no chance

the research will be suppressed.


"They're trying to rewind history," said Kennedy, former president of

Stanford University who now is a professor emeritus of environmental

science and policy there.


The OSU graduate student, Daniel Donato, 29, led researchers in

examining lands burned by the 2002 Biscuit wildfire in Southwest

Oregon, where the Bush administration and others at OSU had promoted

logging as a means of restoring forests quickly. Donato's team

concluded logging slows forest recovery. OSU's College of Forestry,

which has close ties to the timber industry and receives about 10

percent of its funding from a tax on logging, was immediately and

sharply divided.


As they do with all studies, Science editors had independent

scientists review Donato's research before deciding to publish it.

Kennedy on Thursday said the OSU professors, who contend the research

is misleading, can respond to the study once it's published.


"That's the way scientists handle disputes, not by censorship,"

Kennedy said. The step is the latest in an extraordinary dispute,

entwined in the heated politics of Northwest logging and spilling out

from a normally quiet academia. Many professors aspire all their

lives to publish research in

Science, and for an OSU graduate student to do so is a rare achievement.


Other scientists inside and outside OSU said they have rarely if ever

heard of an attempt by professors to hold back such research,

especially when it comes from their college. They said the attempt

raises questions about academic freedom and conflicts of interest

within the College of Forestry. "One has to notice and acknowledge

the courage of a graduate student to do research and publish findings

that run against the norm," said Kathleen Dean Moore, a distinguished

professor of philosophy at OSU who teaches environmental ethics. "The

university isn't about secrecy, it's about discussion. It's about

hearing all the voices so we can learn from them."


James Karr, a professor of fisheries and biology at the University of

Washington who has criticized logging after fires, said he is

"appalled at the way this is playing out." He said the turmoil is

having a chilling effect on other OSU researchers.


Neither OSU President Ed Ray nor Provost Sabah Randhawa would discuss

the situation. The furor has engulfed the prominent dean of the

College of Forestry, Hal Salwasser, who has testified in favor of a

congressional bill that would accelerate logging after fires. The

bill is co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican

representing Eastern Oregon who leads a congressional subcommittee on



A memo to faculty


Salwasser sent a memo to faculty questioning conclusions of the

research paper, first released Jan. 5 in Science's online edition.


Donato's team, including five other scientists from OSU and the U.S.

Forest Service, found that logging after the Biscuit fire destroyed

seedlings growing on their own and had littered the ground with

highly flammable tinder.


They said such cutting "can be counterproductive to goals of forest

regeneration and fuel reduction." The finding called into question

the traditional approach of salvaging burned trees and planting

seedlings. While provoking timber industry outrage, it deepened a

rift within the College of Forestry, where John Sessions, a

distinguished professor of forest engineering, and Professor Emeritus

Michael Newton had authored a report suggesting aggressive logging to

restore forests after the Biscuit blaze. Their report caused the U.S.

Forest Service, backed by the Bush administration, to expand its

logging plans.


Asking for a delay


Sessions and Newton were immediately critical of Donato's research.

They and seven other professors and scientists from OSU, along with

the Forest Service, took the unusual step of asking the Science

editors to delay publication of the study until it addresses their

criticisms. Alternatively, they asked that their concerns be included

in a letter accompanying the study.


They said the study, occupying one page of the journal, draws

sweeping conclusions about salvage logging not backed up by the few

years of research since the blaze. The true test of efforts to

restore forests will be how well seedlings survive into future decades.


The limited research described so far "contributes no new science,"

they said in a letter to the journal. They maintained the journal's

process of peer review failed to detect the flaws. "We believe that

this article damages the institution of peer-reviewed science, and is

inconsistent with the quality of articles we expect from Science,"

they wrote. "We believe that the peer review process failed as a

quality control measure in this case."


Stem cell research


Their assertions emerge just a few weeks after Science faced

criticism for failing to catch fraudulent South Korea-based stem cell

research. But the journal's review process is among the most rigorous

nationwide. "There was no failure of peer review in this case," said

Kennedy, the editor-in-chief of the Donato study. "I'm sorry they

don't like the outcome, but I think they have a misplaced case here."

Salwasser said he had reviewed a draft of the letter to Science and

asked the authors to make changes, which they did. He said he agreed

that Donato's paper went too far in its conclusions but disagreed

with the attempt to hold it out of Science.


"I never thought that was a good idea, but I didn't think I could

step in and tell my faculty to do something or not do something

without infringing on their academic freedom," Salwasser said. "I

sure as heck don't feel good about how this has all unfolded," he said.


Filling the vacuum


James Agee, a professor of forest ecology at the University of

Washington, said the Science study helps fill the vacuum of research

on logging after fires, but he noted weaknesses. It should more

clearly state that the conditions in Southwest Oregon may not apply

everywhere else, he said.


"We have such little information about salvage logging that it's an

important piece," he said. "But it has to be put in the appropriate

place, and the authors didn't do that."


At the same time, he said, the OSU critics "have lost a little

perspective on this." Donato works under Beverly Law, an associate

professor in the College of Forestry and the senior author of the

research paper. Law declined to comment.


Donato said the authors stand behind their study and believe any

response to their work should undergo the same scrutiny and review

that their research did.


The paper's final version deletes one controversial sentence that

appeared in the online version: "The results presented here suggest

that postfire logging may conflict with ecosystem recovery goals."


How about something less controversial next - the effect of beer on loggers maybe? bigdrink.gif

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That is pretty unusual. On the one hand, it could just be the professors being political and not wanting to bite the hand that feeds them (kinda like the US climate science community) or it could be that the Science editors actually did ignore criticisms by the the reviewers. It kind of sounds like there's a bit of both going on here.

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[Tree geek hat on] It's true that the article went a bit far in drawing sweeping conclusions from a limited dataset. You can't write a one-pager titled "Post-wildfire logging hinders regeneration and increases fire risk" and not expect a lot of scrutiny into what you did. What all parties need to remember is that ecology is a science of place - what applies to one area may or may not apply elsewhere... [tree geek hat off]

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some comments:

-the Biscuit report simply explains the economic effects according to various delays in salvage logging. It does not "suggest" anything. Unfortunately few people have actually read it before critiquing.

-the conclusions made in the Donato study are based on short term, graduate student timelines. Are we concerned about immediate impacts of active management or the long-term enhancement of the destroyed stand?

-we all knew that the area was going to burn catastrophically when it was "preserved"

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On the one hand, it could just be the professors being political and not wanting to bite the hand that feeds them (kinda like the US climate science community) or it could be that the Science editors actually did ignore criticisms by the the reviewers. It kind of sounds like there's a bit of both going on here.



Reading the letter of concern from the OSU profs (some of whom I studied with years ago) convinced me that Donato’s paper has some serious shortcomings and/or overstatements, and I wonder whether Science either a) got reviewers poorly qualified to evaluate this particular study or b) ignored their input, as Foraker suggested.


That being said, the draconian request to delay printing is clearly motivated much more by political and economical sensitivities than by any serious risk to the science. The decision to go this route rather than submitting a response to Science following publication is very poor form. These profs have decades of research insight behind them, but need to rest the old-guard antics and let some new voices inform the discussion.

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After talking to some more folks about this issue, I learned a little bit about how Donato did this research. After the fire, they re-planted a site, waited, then salvaged the fire damaged timber. Then came to the conclusion that salvage operations were detrimental to the seedlings resulting in high mortality compared to sites that were left alone.


I think one issue to point out in particular to the Biscuit fire, is that salvage operations didnt take place until a couple years after the fire. Im not saying I agree with all salvage operations, but its difficult to come to the broad conclusions that Donato did under these circumstances.

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