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Grad Students in Center of Forest Culling Fracas

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Grad Students in Center of Forest Culling Fracas


Grad Students in Center of Forest Culling Fracas

Grad Students in Center of Forest Culling Fracas

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Graduate students at Oregon State University's College of Forestry have found themselves at the center of a controversy over fire management. The debate began after the students published an article critical of the common practice of culling valuable trees from an area devastated by fire. Martin Kaste reports on how that research paper has sparked sharp reaction from politicians, timber officials and fellow scientists.


It's been a hectic few weeks for some young grad students at the forestry college at Oregon State University. They've had their research criticized by their own professors, their federal funding was briefly suspended and now there are calls in Congress for an investigation of the whole affair. NPR's Martin Kaste has the story.

MARTIN KASTE, reporting:

The whole dust-up started with a one-page article in the Journal of Science about what happens after forest fires. The article suggests that so-called salvage logging, the practice of going in after a fire and cutting down damaged trees that still have economic value, is bad for the new seedlings that are taking root. It would hardly seem like earthshaking science but Dan Donato, the 29-year-old principal author, says the reaction has been overwhelming.

Mr. DAN DONATO (Graduate Student, Oregon State University): Well it's been a little crazy. It has been a little surreal and it's been hard to get any work done.

KASTE: People care about this stuff in the West and especially in Oregon where a lot of money depends on whether timber companies are allowed to harvest valuable old growth trees in fire damaged forests. Hal Salwasser, the Dean of the College of Forestry, says the article set off alarm bells.

HAL SALWASSER (Dean, College of Forestry, Oregon State University): As soon as the press picked up the article and it started showing up in the papers I had alums, people in forest agencies and people in the forest industry and even some other scientists sending me emails saying now what's going on here and why didn't you guys stop the publication and all this.

KASTE: In fact some members of the faculty did try to stop publication. They wrote to the Journal's editors saying the Donato article did not have enough data to support the conclusion that salvage harvesting harms seedlings. Donato's advisor Professor Bev Law says she's never seen anything like it.

Professor BEV LAW (Forest Science, Oregon State University): In my career I've never seen anyone try to delay a publication in Science.

KASTE: But there was more going on here than a simple scientific dispute. The article seemed to challenge the prevailing wisdom among forest managers that selective salvage logging can be good for a forest and even prevent future big fires. Timber companies and the Bush administration support legislation that would make it easier to do salvage logging after fires, storms or other forest disturbances. When Science put the Donato article on line the Journal also mentioned that legislation and that seems to have crossed the line.

CHRIS STREBIG (Spokesman, Bureau of Land Management): Federal funds can't be used to sway public support one way or another for pending legislation.

KASTE: Chris Strebig is a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management which suspended its funding for the grad student's research following the publication of their article. Strebig says the agency was worried about the perception that the article had a political agenda.

Mr. STREBIG: I guess it was the reference and maybe the timing of that piece.

KASTE: The agency's suspension of funding got the attention of Democratic Congressman Jay Inslee of Washington State. He went to the floor of the House and called for a full investigation. Within a few days the BLM had backed off, restoring the funding after a perfunctory exchange of letters with the university. But Representative Inslee still wants an investigation because he thinks the incident fits a larger pattern of alleged scientific censorship by the government.

Representative JAY INSLEE (Democrat, Washington): This administration needs to get the message that the public will not tolerate the suppression of science. This is what Galileo went through when he published the radical thought at that time that the sun was the center of the solar system and he was punished by the prevailing authorities.

KASTE: Back at O.S.U. the shell-shocked grad students do not have such a grand conception of the importance of their little study about tree seedlings. They do not think their academic freedom was limited by the government and Professor Law says they have been reassured by an apology from the Dean as well as campus wide letters from other faculty reaffirming the need for academic freedom.

Professor LAW: I think a lesson was learned and people will be a little more careful about how they handle things. That's our hope anyway.

KASTE: But even though everyone here at O.S.U. is now rededicating themselves to the principle of academic freedom, the fact remains that the School of Forestry is housed here in a beautiful atrium named after a timber company. With floor to ceiling murals of inlaid wood showing bucolic scenes of lumberjacks sawing down a tree under the calm gaze of a deer and her fawn. The building is a monument to the inescapable fact that timber is money and the goal of a forest managed on pure science is just that, a goal. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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