BLM Cuts Forest Grant after Study Criticizes Tree Cutting

Published Jul 21, 2006

In February 2006, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) suspended an Oregon State University (OSU) grant after university researchers published a study in the prestigious journal Science which concluded that logging in the wake of an Oregon fire retarded the forest's recovery. This conclusion clashed with the Bush administration's support for easing restrictions on such "salvage logging."

Daniel Donato, an OSU graduate student and lead author on the study, published his article as Representatives Greg Walden (R-OR) and Brian Baird (D-WA) were pushing for congressional legislation that would accelerate post-fire logging. Walden and Baird's bill was supported by the timber industry and the administration (and some OSU forestry professors) as a way to prevent future fires and speed the recovery of scorched forests. Donato's study, however, refuted those claims, concluding that "post-fire logging, by removing naturally seeded conifers and increasing surface fuel loads, can be counterproductive to goals of regeneration and fuel reduction."¹ 

The Washington Post called Donato's study "consistent with research findings from around the world that have documented how salvage logging can strip burned forests of the biological diversity that fire and natural recovery help protect."²

A BLM spokesman said the decision to suspend OSU funding was based solely on whether the university had violated the provisions of the grant.³ Of particular concern were two sentences added by journal editors to supplemental material for the online version of the journal, not the article itself. The sentences read: "Legislation currently pending in U.S. Congress, HR 4200, would expedite postfire logging projects, citing reforestation and fuel reduction among its goals. To help inform the dialogue, we present data from a study of early conifer regeneration and fuel loads following the 2002 Biscuit Fire, Oregon, USA, with and without postfire logging."4

Critics claimed these sentences violated the grant prohibition on lobbying or attempting to influence legislation. However the editors of Science confirmed that the authors of the article asked that the language be removed prior to publication and that failure to do so was an editorial mistake on the part of the journal.5 OSU promptly responded that the journal's inclusion of the legislation passage did not violate the university's contract, and the BLM restored the grant funding within days.

Several faculty members at OSU's Department of Forest Engineering also objected to the paper's publication in Science. The journal stood by its decision to publish, and Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science, invited the OSU professors who objected to the findings to publish a technical comment critiquing the study. Kennedy expressed an opinion that the resolution of scientific disputes through journal-mediated debate "is preferred to censorship."6

However, many scientists, advocates and public officials denounced the decision to freeze the OSU funding as tantamount to censorship of politically inconvenient science. Jerry Franklin, professor and forest expert at the University of Washington said, "It's totally without precedent as far as I can recollect… It says, 'If we don't like what you're saying we'll cut off your money.'"7 Andy Stahl, executive director of the watchdog group Forest Service Employees for Environment Ethics, echoed that sentiment, "The administration, regardless of the outcome of this incident, has made its message clear. You knuckle under and give us the results we want, or we won't fund you."8

1. Donato, D. et al. 2006. Post-Wildfire Logging Hinders Regeneration and Increases Fire Risk. Science 311: 352.
2. Harden, Blaine. "In Fire's Wake, Logging Study Inflames Debate." Washington Post, February 27, 2006, accessed December 5, 2006.
3. "BLM suspends its funding for controversial OSU fire study," Associated Press, February 7, 2006, accessed December 5, 2006.
4. Donato, D. et al. 2006. Supplemental online material, initial version available online (subscription required).
5. Milstein, Michael. "BLM Freezes OSU’s Grant Behind Study." The Oregonian. Tuesday, February 7, 2006, accessed December 5, 2006.
6. Kennedy, Donald, "The Mailbag." Science, March 3, 2006.
7. Milstein.