Op-Ed on Planning Rule: Scientists in the Fishbowl

This op-ed, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, reminds me of suggestion I would like to make to all science students (or natural resources, or environment)- and to designers of curricula. I was blessed to have had an excellent course in history of science at UCLA before I started my science degree programs. At the time (70’s) there was also a body of literature on peer review and other aspects of the sociology of science related to the question of why women were not as successful in their careers. If you looked at these papers, the sociological aspects of the scientific enterprise were pretty much “in your face” (as well as living through the experience). My point is that the history of science course made me aware of the social context within the science biz before I was exposed to the biz itself. I think formal coursework in the history of science, and science-policy studies, both should be required to anyone who becomes a scientist. It continues to amaze me that some folks think deference should be given to some fields, say, conservation biology, but others (like science policy studies) not so much. I call this a “selective disciplinary filter .”

What brought this to mind was this quote:
“This would ensure that all of the most recent and important research is considered, as well as to provide some measure of critique if management seems intent on ignoring the science in favor of some special interest.” (my italics).

I think first year requirements for courses in science policy studies and history of science for any policy-relevant science master’s would really help students understand the real world that they will be exposed to on graduation, as well as the complex interplay of scientists, representative government and society. Otherwise, the fish can’t sense that they are swimming in a fishbowl.

Sam Rabin

The more than 850,000 acres of national forest across our state — and the millions of Georgians who depend on these lands — will benefit greatly from recent revisions to the Forest System Land Management Planning Rule, under the direction of the U.S. Forest Service.

The planning rule, up for public comment through May 16, is the guiding document that supervisors of individual national forests use to develop strategies to manage their land for wildlife, timber, recreation and other uses. Until a new rule is put in place, the Forest Service is essentially stuck using a version first published in 1982.

With every week that passes without the implementation of a new rule, the Forest Service becomes more out of touch with developments in the realm of conservation science.

Jewels such as Georgia’s Chattahoochee and Oconee National Forests are threatened with obsolescence and decline if planning for their management does not take new knowledge into account. These forests are beloved by many Atlanta residents as a way to escape and reconnect with nature.

The Chattahoochee River — which fills the Lake Lanier reservoir, providing us with most of our water — has its headwaters in the Chattahoochee National Forest. If the forest is degraded, we can expect the quality and quantity of water in the reservoir to decline. Our city’s struggles with water supply during the most recent drought vividly illustrated that no such reduction can be tolerated.

Atlantans must consider it imperative, then, that the planning process for the national forest system incorporate the most up-to-date scientific thinking so that this valuable ecosystem service may be preserved or even enhanced.

One theme that has gained traction since 1982 is the idea of sustainability — making sure that pursuing our livelihoods does not impinge upon the ability of future generations to pursue theirs.

Another is the idea that climate change and other large-scale stressors could bring major changes to our managed lands, in areas including ecosystem health and timber productivity.

Finally, it has been broadly accepted that, even in the absence of resource extraction, the preservation of healthy, functional ecosystems provides our society with a number of services at scales ranging from the surrounding landscape — such as the dependence of Atlanta’s water supply on the Chattahoochee National Forest — to the entire globe. The proposed rule addresses such concepts and processes, which makes it a vast improvement over the 1982 rule.

All that said, there is room for further improvements. First, no protected area should sit isolated in a sea of habitat that has been degraded or destroyed. It is critical for ecosystem and species health that high-quality, well-connected habitat be distributed throughout the surrounding landscape; the new rule should do more to encourage managers to work with other agencies and private landowners in this regard.

Second, the rule should require more consultation of managers with independent scientists. This would ensure that all of the most recent and important research is considered, as well as to provide some measure of critique if management seems intent on ignoring the science in favor of some special interest.

Finally, the Rule should provide more guidance about resolving conflicts between preservation of species diversity and other uses of the forest.

These improvements will help preserve the health of our national forests for many generations of Americans — and Atlantans — to come.

Sam Rabin is a native Atlantan obtaining a graduate degree in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University in New Jersey.

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