Environment, Inc -Part Four

Playing with fire: Spin on science

puts national treasure at risk

(Fourth of five parts)

By Tom Knudson
Bee Staff Writer
(Published April 25, 2001)

The scientific paper that landed on Tammy Randall-Parker's desk was thick with jargon and data. But to Randall-Parker, a biologist with the Coconino National Forest in Arizona, it was riveting.

Citing an enormous accumulation of vegetation and deadwood in Western forests -- the legacy of years of effective federal firefighting -- the report by a prestigious team of specialists warned that unless such stands were thinned, they were likely to erupt into flame, threatening a rare, falcon-like bird: the northern goshawk.

Randall-Parker felt compelled to act. But when she and others suggested thinning near a goshawk nest, environmentalists protested on the bird's behalf, stopping the proposal dead.

Then came the fire that Randall-Parker feared. "I watched it just explode," she said. The 1996 blaze devoured centuries-old trees as if they were kindling -- including the one that cradled the goshawk nest.

"There was not a green tree left," she said. "What the scientists said could happen -- did happen, right in front of my eyes."

Environmental advocacy has long struggled with scientific fact, despite its very basis in science. But in the battle over the majestic conifer forests that blanket much of the West, advocacy is often shoving science aside -- and forests, wildlife and human communities are suffering the consequences.

Tweaking science to make a point is nothing new for environmental groups. To protect rare species, for example, some groups trot out just those studies -- or snippets of studies -- that support their view. Some will pick and choose facts that serve their interests in campaigns to create wilderness areas.

Misusing forest science is different.

It is playing with fire. Not the natural fires that have nourished forests for centuries, but unusually savage ones that jeopardize homes and human lives and can inflict more serious environmental damage than logging.

"We're not sure if some of these burned areas will ever recover their native biological diversity," said Wallace Covington, a professor of forest ecology at Northern Arizona University and a nationally recognized fire scientist. "Certainly, over evolutionary time, new species will emerge. But these are major devastations."

Science will never settle all conflict over forest and fire management. But during the past two decades, university, government and industry scientists have written a series of papers published in academic journals and elsewhere that point again and again to the rapid and dangerous accumulation of woody debris in Western forests -- and the need for thinning.


"There is strong consensus among credible scientists that 100 years of fire suppression has led to a buildup of fuel in Western forests that makes them very susceptible to destructive, unnatural, ecosystem-destroying wildfire," said Neil Sampson, a visiting fellow at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and former chairman of the 1994 National Commission on Wildfire Disasters.

"Time is not an ally," he said.

Environmental groups aren't convinced. Where science sees a tinderbox, they see timber sales in disguise. And despite a steep drop in the volume of timber sold from federal forests in recent years, they say the U.S. Forest Service cannot be trusted.

"We're dealing with an agency that -- at the district level -- is a rogue agency," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, which is backing a "no commercial logging" campaign in Congress.

"There are some very good people in the Forest Service," Pope said. "But there are some people who really still think their job is to keep the local mill running."

Sampson said it's just not so. "The idea that thinning the forest is a boondoggle for the timber industry is bizarre," he said. "Much of what needs to be removed isn't even economically valuable. They are going to spin the science and lose the forest."

Wildfire today is inflicting nightmarish wounds -- injuries made worse by a failure to heed scientific warnings. For example:

* In 1994, Covington and a colleague warned that the Kendrick Mountain Wilderness Area in northern Arizona was so clotted with vegetation, it was ready to explode. "Delay ... will only perpetuate fuel buildup and increase the potential for uncontrolled and destructive wildfire," they wrote in a scientific analysis for the Kaibab National Forest.

Some thinning was done -- but not enough. Last year, a large fire swept through the region, carving an apocalyptic trail of destruction.

"What happened is much worse, ecologically, than a clear-cut -- much worse," Covington said "And that fire is the future. It's happening again and again. We're going to have skeletal landscapes."

* Listening to fire and forest scientists, Martha Ketelle pleaded in 1996 for permission to log and thin an incendiary mass of storm-killed timber in California's Trinity Alps. "This is a true emergency of vast magnitude," Ketelle, then supervisor of the Six Rivers National Forest, wrote to her boss in San Francisco. "It is not a matter of if a fire will occur, but how extensive the damage will be when the fire does occur."

Because of an environmental appeal, the project bogged down. Then, in 1999, a fire found its way into the area. It spewed smoke for hundreds of miles, incinerated spotted owl habitat and triggered soil erosion and stream damage in a key salmon-spawning watershed.

* Early last year, officials of Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico urged that dense pine stands near Los Alamos be thinned. "The underlying need is to reduce the potential for large, high intensity crown fires that threaten people, property, wildlife (and) watersheds," they stated in a report.



The project was slowed by a lack of funds and by environmental concerns. Last May, the Cerro Grande fire, the largest and most destructive in New Mexico history, erupted in the very area recommended for thinning, damaging or destroying more than 220 structures, including several portable structures at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

"Witnessing the Cerro Grande fire is the closest I'll come to seeing a biblical event in my lifetime," said Bill Armstrong, a forester with the Santa Fe National Forest. "It was unstoppable. Awe-inspiring. Futile. It was not, however, an unpreventable act of God."


Step into the forest outside Flagstaff, Ariz., and you enter a world of living matchsticks. You see dozens, hundreds, thousands of spindly, stunted ponderosa pines, crowded close together in shadowy thickets -- each competing with the others for moisture, soil nutrients and sunlight.

It is a much different setting from the one described by E.F. Beale, an explorer who passed through the area in 1858. "We came to a glorious forest of lofty pines," Beale wrote in a journal. "The forest was perfectly open and unencumbered with brush wood, so that the traveling was excellent."

What made that 19th century forest spacious was fire.

"Frequent surface fires were as important to ... forests as sunshine and rain," Thomas Swetnam, director of the University of Arizona's Tree-Ring Laboratory, told Congress last year. "Indeed, in southwestern ponderosa pine forests, the only natural events more frequent and regular than fire were the changing seasons."

Smokey Bear changed all that. Preventing and putting out fires, though, turned forests into thickets. Covington, the fire scientist, has quantified the change. In the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona, he found an area that sprouted 36 to 81 trees per acre in 1876 had grown shaggy and dense with 692 to 1,801 trees per acre by 1994.

A 1999 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office concluded: "The most extensive and serious problem (for) national forests in the interior West is the overaccumulation of vegetation. According to the Forest Service, 39 million acres are at high risk" of fire.

Not content to lick lightly along the surface of the forest, snapping up grass, brush and small trees, modern-day blazes roar up a staircase of woody debris, leaping high into the forest canopy. Such contemporary "crown fires" burn so hot that they destroy everything from microscopic life in the soil to majestic, old-growth trees that have been nourished by centuries of cooler fires.

"The fires we are experiencing now -- and I've been in this business 27 years -- are unlike anything we have experienced in this country before," said Paul Summerfelt, a fuel management officer with the Flagstaff fire department. "And this is just the beginning."


The buildup of fuels in Western forests was a prominent topic in the 1996 Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project report, a 3,187-page scientific assessment of the California mountain range.

Citing a remarkable accumulation of vegetation and deadwood, the $6.5 million, congressionally funded report warned of a fiery future -- unless overcrowded stands were thinned soon.

"Current quantities of flammable biomass -- primarily small trees and surface fuels -- are unprecedented," the report stated. "Simple physics and common sense dictate that the area burned by high-severity fires will increase. Losses of life, property and resources will escalate accordingly."

One suggested remedy was small-tree logging, followed by prescribed fire. "Logging can serve as a tool to help reduce fire hazard," it stated.

Environmental groups overlooked that part of the report.

Instead, they plucked one sentence from thousands to argue that all logging is bad. Here's how the National Forest Protection Alliance, a consortium of activists, used the report last fall in an action alert, under the heading, "What the Government's Own Scientists Say about Logging and Wildfires":

"Timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate and fuels accumulation has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity."

Fire scientist Phillip Weatherspoon knows the sentence well. He helped write the Sierra Nevada report. The excerpt, he said, refers to historic logging that left Western forests littered with woody debris -- not modern thinning designed to clean up such debris.

"By itself it is misleading," he said. "This has been really abused."

Informed of Weatherspoon's concern, Jeanette Russell, network coordinator for the forest alliance, said: "This is the most popular fact we have. It is a quote congresspeople have used."

Chad Hanson, executive director of the John Muir Project and prominent foe of commercial logging, maintained there is nothing wrong with using the passage in isolation.

"It's a true statement," Hanson said. "It does not require additional statements to make it true."

The controversy is white-hot, powered by decades of distrust of the Forest Service. As Timothy Ingalsbee, director of the Western Fire Ecology Center in Oregon, explained in a letter:

"The fact that thinning is an abstract concept makes it subject to discretionary abuse .... In every single case of an alleged 'fire hazard reduction/forest ecosystem restoration' project that the agency has proposed the use of commercial thinning, the first thing the agency seeks is removal of the logs."

Not all environmental groups oppose commercial thinning, though. In Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon Trust has joined with Northern Arizona University, the Forest Service and others in an effort to thin dense stands.

The group, though, has hit a snag with no-commercial cut advocates within other environmental groups. "They say we are a tool of the timber industry," said Brad Ack, the Trust's conservation director.

"They say that logging increases the risk of fire," he said. "But that is out-of-context science. A lot of these folks are simply against cutting trees. It's almost spiritual environmentalism."


Hanson remains skeptical.

"This is not about science," he said. "This is the drumbeat of thinning being driven by the (Forest Service) commercial timber program. Science is being victimized."

No pro-thinning effort has drawn more heat than the Quincy Library Group, a coalition of conservationists, loggers and business people in the Sierra Nevada that is a national model for fuel-reduction efforts. What's fueling that heat is sometimes partial truth and hyperbole.

During congressional debate, for example, a coalition of environmental groups -- including the Sierra Club and the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign -- claimed a Quincy-sponsored bill would "double logging." What the coalition didn't say was that logging volume was already at a 50-year low and that doubling it -- which is not actually what the bill proposed -- would have kept it well below historic levels.

"I still support that statement," said Craig Thomas, conservation director of the forest protection campaign in an e-mail. "It doesn't matter what the logging level was in the clear cut days (of the) 1980s. Those levels had no ecological validity."

The bill, passed by Congress, was meant to end the jobs versus trees gridlock, reduce fire risk and restore forests to health; it calls for thinning 40,000 to 70,000 acres of dense stands a year, while protecting 650,000 environmentally sensitive acres.

"They claim that we're clear-cutting, that we're going to destroy the spotted owl and ruin ancient forests -- and we're not," said Michael Yost, a professor of forestry at Feather River College and a member of the Quincy group.

"My wife and I have belonged for many years to the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and other organizations. And we've stopped our memberships," Yost said. "It's not in retaliation. It's just that I can't believe what these people are saying anymore."

In another case, the forest protection campaign distributed a flier to the U.S. Senate featuring a photo of a gigantic stump. "Sierra Old Growth Still Being Logged," it said. "Vote No on the Quincy Logging Bill." But the tree stump had nothing to do with the Quincy effort, or with Quincy itself. The tree was logged in another area.

"There is truly a conviction on the part of environmental groups that they can distort reality to convey impressions they believe are the truth," said Linda Blum, another Quincy member. "The focus is on ideology and politics -- not the environment."

Thomas said Quincy supporters are blowing smoke.

"This is their tactic: to try to demonstrate that we're some evil beast," Thomas said.

And while Thomas said he was not involved with the flier, he defended its use. "Who cares where the tree was cut?" he said. "The important thing was to convey a truthful message that old-growth forests were at risk in the Quincy proposal."

Some environmentalists don't merely manipulate the science. They attack the credibility of the scientists, including Covington, a Regents professor at Northern Arizona University.

For more than two decades, Covington has labored to bring a science-based ecological restoration gospel to pine forests around the West. His work has been published in academic periodicals, including the prestigious British journal Nature. Yet environmentalists consider his research suspect.

"Wally Covington is a darling of timber-industry supporters in Congress," said Hanson. "A lot of his data is open to question. He is a competent guy, but he is guessing."

Covington replied: "The science is solid. This is not a guess. They are attempting to discredit me because my views are different than their views."

"Science is not just the selective citation of studies," Covington said. "Science is built upon an entire body of knowledge. It's not slanted toward proving a particular point of view."

Sorting fact from fiction can sometimes be difficult. Armstrong, the New Mexico forester, recalled attending a meeting last year at the invitation of the Forest Conservation Council, a local environmental group.

The subject: a thinning project proposed by Santa Fe National Forest officials aimed at protecting the forests and streams that make up Santa Fe's watershed. The forest council didn't like the idea.

"The director got up and presented to the audience a long list of scientific authors and citations, all of them refuting what we were proposing to do," Armstrong said.

The list sounded impressive. "But we didn't know what to make of it," Armstrong said. Later, the group forwarded its scientific objections to the national forest in a letter.

"The claim that 'thinning,' whether commercial or not, will decrease the risk of wildfire continues to be conjecture," the group's president, John Talberth, wrote on Feb. 18, 2000.

Then he cited some science. "According to Forest Service researcher Jack Cohen, thinning forests ... does little, if anything to protect nearby homes and towns from losses during wildfire and may, in fact, be inefficient and ineffective," Talberth wrote, footnoting a 1999 report by Cohen.

Cohen's report does say that. But it also says: "This (research) should not imply that wildland vegetation management is not without a purpose and should not occur."

The forest council left that part out.

Cohen said the group is misrepresenting his research, which focuses narrowly on risk to homes and does not assess the ecological impact of thinning. "They're certainly distorting the context," he said.

In an e-mail, Cohen said: "I think it very unfortunate that some environmental groups play the current spin games that have become very much a part of our culture. Intellectual dishonesty has become a norm."

Talberth responded with an e-mail, too: "We stand by all that we have said," he wrote. "The truth is that there are two sides to the story and if these researchers cannot stand to acknowledge that, then maybe they should consider careers as politicians and leave science to those with more objective thinking."

Talberth's original letter quoted another study, in the journal Forest Science. That article, too, was cited out of context, said Carl Skinner, a California fire scientist who co-authored it.

Armstrong said the scientific citations show up again and again in other environmental appeals and protests. "We get this pseudoscience and misquoted stuff all the time," he said.