Scientists' debate may impact local forest projects


Last updated 4/18/2023 at 12:15pm

In what appears as a classic case of scientific quarrel, a new study is cited by local environmentalists arguing that certain studies funded by the Forest Service contain a pattern of “falsification.” That was a word used several times by one of the study’s authors, Chad T. Hanson, PhD, of Earth Island Institute in Berkeley, California, who spoke with The Nugget at length.

The Nugget asked District Ranger Ian Reid to comment on the study titled “Countering Omitted Evidence of Variable Historical Forests and Fire Regime in Western USA Dry Forests: The Low-Severity-Fire Model Rejected.” Reid assumes it’s the normal “tit for tat” among competing academics and part of the ongoing process of debate.

The new study’s finding could potentially impact a number of planned projects in the Deschutes National Forest, including the Green Ridge project. Reid doesn’t see that happening, however, given how far along the project is, leaving any further challenges to be decided in litigation. Work should begin in 2024 barring a lawsuit.

The Green Ridge Landscape Restoration project proposes a range of treatments that the Forest Service argues are needed to make the Central Oregon landscape more resilient to wildfires, insects, and disease.

“Recent investments made through the Forest Service 10-year Wildfire Crisis strategy will support this work,” said Holly Jewkes, forest supervisor for the Deschutes National Forest.

The alternative chosen in the draft decision includes up to 19,437 acres of thinning, mowing, and prescribed fire treatments. It also authorizes restoration of aspen and cottonwood stands and 268 acres of hand thinning of small trees around meadow edges in prime mule deer habitat.

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Objectors had until June of 2022 to make their case opposing the draft. The final proposal later this year will give objectors another bite at the apple. Hanson hopes that the new study will provide evidence forcing a reevaluation of this and other projects like it. He believes the study is “transformational.”

According to the John Muir Project of which Hanson is a research ecologist, the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Fire, exposed a broad pattern of scientific misrepresentations and omissions by government forest and wildfire scientists. This “falsification of the scientific record” is, according to critics, driving bad policies and government mismanagement of public forests, including clearcutting and commercial logging of mature and old-growth trees under deceptive euphemisms like “thinning,” “restoration,” and “fuel reduction.”

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In particular the Muir statement says studies funded by the U.S. Forest Service, an agency that financially benefits from commercial logging on public lands, has presented a falsified narrative that historical forests had low tree densities and were heavily dominated by low-severity fires, using this narrative to push for increased commercial logging.

Reid says that the underlying science for projects like Green Ridge is “Evidence for widespread changes in the structure, composition, and fire regimes of western North American forests,” authored in 2021 by R.K. Hagmann et al., 30 accredited scientists and policy experts.

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A look at their credentials does not suggest the hand of timber companies or forest product executives. Affiliations are more typically associated with groups such as The Nature Conservancy of Ashland, Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research, Ecological Restoration Institute, UC Berkeley Department of Environmental Science, among others.

Hanson contends that the vast majority of woodland fire research is either conducted by employees of the Forest Service or are grant recipients funded by the Forest Service.

“The Forest Service is heavily incentivized to log, and has a built-in bias to omit research that counters their narrative,” Hanson said.

The study of which Hanson is co-author is 48 pages long with 29,187 words. The Hagmann et al. study is 34 pages in length. Both are crammed with charts, tables, maps, and other highly technical reading.

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Hanson alleges that the Forest Service intentionally omits bodies of work that contradict their practices. Reid believes the process is transparent, and those in opposition routinely have access and input.


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