Science or “Scienciness” Situation 4- When Scientists Speak for Nature

This is Science Policy “Situations that Shout Watch Out” Number 4
Back to the Hanson paper.
Ecologists are apparently saying (either they are saying this, or the statement is so global about ecologists as to be incorrect) that high intensity fire must be “facilitated”

There is strong consensus among ecologists that high-intensity fire, and resulting snag forest habitat, is something that must be preserved and facilitated, not prevented or destroyed

The Hanson goes on to say a lot about wildlife, plant and bird diversity.

But what about these watershed scientists with USGS?

In addition, surface water flowing from burned areas may carry increased levels of sediment, organic debris, and chemicals that may contribute to significant degradation of municipal water supplies and aquatic habitats.

Or this study at PNW.

With less productive soils, Bormann said, a forest will not grow as quickly nor reabsorb as much carbon as before a burn—a process critical to mitigating the accumulation of atmospheric carbon, which traps heat in the atmosphere and can, thus, raise temperatures.

So some scientists say that “high intensity fires are good for some plants and animals”. Other scientists say “bad things can happen to good soil and aquatic habitat from high intensity fires.”(actually we don’t have to read about that, we can observe it directly).
Other scientists measure the differences in soils.

All these different positive and negative impacts happen from the same event- high intensity fire. Given that array of possible impacts, how do we decide how to manage vegetation and fire?

1) Back to the Basics. Work on keeping hydrologic function and soil- no matter what some plants will grow and some animals will eat them. Vegetation is a blanket that will grow if we maintain soil and water. This is a good strategy even under climate change. This empowers hydrologists, soil scientists, fish bios and aquatic ecologists. You could call it restoring and protecting hydrologic function.

2) Natural (pre European or ?) is best for vegetation and animals. First, we would have to figure it out. Then we would have to invest in efforts to manage for that, and live with negative impacts on other resources. Of course, this idea may not even be possible given changed conditions due to climate change. Like the concept of HRV, this empowers various kinds of ecologist. You could call it trying to retain some previous composition and structure.

3) Think about a given situation (which is never only about one thing- it might be about protecting communities AND watersheds) and work with people to figure out the right thing to do- informed by 1 and 2.

My point is that 1, 2 and 3 are not science questions- although 1 and 2 empower different groups of scientists to be the experts. 1, 2 and 3 are ideas about how land should be managed and priorities set. Questions like “who wins and who loses, among people and different components of the environment, what are the best investments in protection and restoration” are ultimately values choices. Even within environmental choices (losing endangered trout habitat versus potentially reduced species richness for plants), it can’t, ultimately, be a science question.

Scientists don’t know “what’s best for Nature” because Nature does not speak about what She wants. Fish here and birds there? Soils where trees can or can’t grow? We have feelings that we want natural conditions (fish in streams, good water quality) and that is wonderful. But when it comes to trade-offs, we can’t punt to scientists but have to work out what we want most, and what we don’t like but can live with.

Next Situation that Shouts Watch Out: redefining English words
Previous Situations that Shout Watch Out 1-3 and 5

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