The Circle of Life – Fire, Logging, Climate Style

Happy New Year, everyone!

So I was intrigued by Matthew’s post here on the scientists’ letter denigrating Tom Bonnicksen’s work (note this was in 2006, but Matthew just raised the issue, so it’s worth examining now). As many NCFP readers know, many years of work in this field have left me with a sense when something sounds a bit off (or some have put it, I don’t believe anything I read).

I thought after following climate science for a while, that no ad hominem attacks (in the guise of “science” could shock me.. but this is our world here). Back in the day we were trained to be hard on ideas and data, that was science.. not figuring out ways to skewer scientists who disagree with us (yes, scientists are human, but..).

It shocked me because having followed these debates for almost 40 years now, I had never heard of these folks (except Norm, but not with regard to fire science). Here’s the text of what Matthew found in the LA Times and referred to in this comment.

Logging Proponent’s Credentials Questioned

An emeritus professor has been highly visible in the push to log on federal land. He has a contract with a timber industry foundation.
October 21, 2006|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer
In the perennial battle over how the West’s vast acreage of federal forests should be managed, science is a favorite weapon. And on the pro-logging side no academic has been as visible as Thomas M. Bonnicksen, particularly in California.
The Texas A&M emeritus professor of forest science has testified before Congress 13 times, written numerous op-ed pieces and been widely quoted in Western newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. Always he sounds the same theme: Logging is the key to restoring public lands to their former fire-resistant state.
In his writings, Bonnicksen has commonly disclosed that he sits on the advisory board of the Auburn, Calif.-based Forest Foundation.
What he hasn’t divulged is how lucrative his connection with the pro-logging timber industry-funded foundation has been. According to public tax documents, Bonnicksen collected $109,000 from the foundation in the last two years as an independent contractor.
“He’s always introduced as the leading expert on forest recovery, and he’s just not. There’s nothing in his record other than just talking and hand-waving,” said UCLA ecology professor Philip Rundel, one of several academics who issued an open letter to the media this week questioning Bonnicksen’s credentials.
“I don’t care if people print his stuff or not. But he needs to be identified for what he is … a lobbyist.”
The letter, signed by two other UC faculty members and the founding dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, accused Bonnicksen of having misrepresented scientific facts, and advancing views that “fall far outside the mainstream of scientific opinion.”
The letter also disputed Bonnicksen’s claim of an affiliation with the University of California. Although he has identified himself repeatedly as a visiting professor at UC Davis, officials there say that although Bonnicksen was once offered that title, he was never formally named a visiting professor.
Bonnicksen, who lives in Florida but frequently gives talks in California, said the letter writers were acting unethically and trying to silence him.

“I am a full professor for life,” he said. “I have academic freedom. I may speak as I wish, and I’ve always tried to do that as honestly as possible and using the science I know and have access to.”
Cheryl Rubin, vice president of communications for the Forest Foundation and its sister organization, the California Forest Products Commission, said Bonnicksen was paid “for the work he performed to educate Californians and people nationally: interacting with journalists, policymakers, students, professors. He gives speeches.
“We’ve always identified him with the Forest Foundation,” she added. “I don’t believe it’s a common practice to say paid…. How would you expect it to be revealed in an op-ed?”

So first, I tried to find the letter (being charitable, perhaps 2006 was pre-linking) and found it here (although, conceivably, the authors of the blog may not have posted it accurately). As posted, it feels pretty creepy to me.

We are sending you this letter as a concerned group of forest scientists and/or fire resource managers at major research universities. We feel compelled to write to you in response to the many letters, opinion articles, and commentaries that Dr. Thomas Bonnicksen has been sending to newspapers across the United States. Most of us have served on federal and state committees reviewing the fire management policies of the
National Park Service and other agencies, and we all maintain active research programs. We feel very strongly that not only do the views and statements of Dr. Bonnicksen fall far outside the mainstream of scientific opinion, but more importantly that Dr. Bonnicksen has misrepresented himself and his qualifications to speak to these issues.

These misrepresentations include:

University Affiliation: In all of his contacts with the media over the past several years, Dr. Bonnicksen has in part justified his credibility by identifying himself as Visiting Professor at University of California Davis. This is false. Dr. Bonnicksen does not now, nor has he ever had, an appointment at UC Davis. The University of California has now sent Dr. Bonnicksen a “cease and desist” letter demanding that he not use their name.

We find this misrepresentation extremely troubling, particularly to those of us on the faculty of the University of California.

Credibility: Dr. Bonnicksen introduces himself, as do his supporters, as one of the leading national experts on such topics as forest management, fire ecology, and forest history. In fact, there is nothing in his academic record of research or experience to justify such a characterization. By any major university standard of achievement, his academic record is weak, consisting largely of letters to the editor and oped articles. This is not a record that would achieve tenure at a major research university.

Dr. Bonnicksen’s unusual theories of forest structure and stability, expressed many years ago were never widely accepted. The state of scientific and empirical knowledge regarding the fire ecology and management of these forests has grown exponentially since Dr. Bonnicksen collected his data three decades ago. Today we have a comprehensive and sophisticated picture of forest structure and fire ecology that has been measured, validated and published by members of the academic community,
the National Park Service, and the United States Geological Survey. In simple terms, there is no serious scientific support for Dr. Bonnicksen’s ideas of forest management.

As academic researchers, we welcome increased public understanding of scientific issues and an open discourse representing a diversity of credible views. However, we feel very strongly that Dr. Bonnicksen’s views and misrepresentations of factual material, as well as his academic credentials, should be labeled for the political views that they are and not presented as serious science. The opinions he presents are contradicted by all prevailing scientific data. We ask that you consider these issues of credibility before publishing his oped articles and commentaries in the future, but of course these decisions are yours to make.

With all respect,

Philip W. Rundel
Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
University of California, Los Angeles

Michael F. Allen
Director of the Center for Conservation Biology
Professor of Plant Pathology and Biology
University of California, Riverside

Norman L. Christensen, Jr.
Founding Dean and Professor of Ecology
Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences
Duke University

Jon E. Keeley
Adjunct Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
University of California, Los Angeles

So I tried to do a 5 minute check of their credentials..
Here are the four folks who signed the letter:
Phillip Rundell
Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
University of California, Los Angeles

Michael F. Allen
Director of the Center for Conservation Biology
Professor of Plant Pathology and Biology
University of California, Riverside

Norman L. Christensen, Jr.
Founding Dean and Professor of Ecology
Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences
Duke University

Jon E. Keeley
Adjunct Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
University of California, Los Angeles

Of these, only Keeley seems to have research related to studying fires in California.. but not much on vegetation management and fires. Note: the author of the LA Times piece could have done the same five minute check. Also note that she didn’t talk to Bonnicksen himself to get his point of view. And why would the LA Times be interested in logging at all? There have been no mills in the LA area since I can remember.

Here’s also the followup letter by 10 forest scientists.
October 2006
Letter to the Media:

We are appalled at the attack on Dr. Thomas Bonnicksen by four individuals who are attempting to silence debate. Their attack is a violation of professional standards of conduct in science: the free exchange of ideas and collegiality among scholars.

Dr. Bonnicksen earned a Ph.D. in forest policy from the University of California at Berkeley and served as Department Head at Texas A&M University before being granted emeritus status in forest science in 2004. His research in forest science spans decades and has been published widely in peer-reviewed scientific journals, reports and books. His 2000 book, America’s Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery, documents 18,000 years of forest history and has received many excellent book reviews. He has assisted community leaders throughout California using science in understanding forestry issues and addressing those issues.

While we may agree or disagree with Dr. Bonnicksen’s views on any particular issue, we adamantly oppose any effort to stifle his contribution to the debate on proper management of our nation’s forests.


Robert Becker, Ph.D.
Professor & Director
Strom Thurmond Institute of Government & Public Affairs
Clemson University

James Bowyer, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
Dept. of Bio Products & Bio Systems Engineering
University of Minnesota
Director Responsible Materials Program
Dovetail Partners, Inc.

John Helms, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
Dept. of Environmental Science, Policy & Management-Ecosystem Science
UC Berkeley

Robert G. Lee, Ph.D.
College of Forest Resources, AR-10
University of Washington

Bill Libby, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Forest Genetics
Dept. of Environmental Science, Policy & Management
College of Natural Resources
UC Berkeley

William McKillop, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Forest Economics
Dept. of Environmental Science, Policy & Management
College of Natural Resources
UC Berkeley

Chadwick Dearing Oliver, Ph.D.
Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and
Director, Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry
School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
Yale University

Scott E. Schlarbaum, Ph.D.
James R. Cox Professor of Forest Genetics
Department of Forestry, Wildlife & Fisheries
Institute of Agriculture
The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

John Stuart, Ph.D.
Professor of Dendrology and Fire Ecology
Department of Forestry & Watershed Management
California State University, Humboldt

Gene Wood, Ph.D.
Professor of Wildlife Ecology/Conservation
Dept. of Forestry & Natural Resources
Clemson University

So then I tried to find a CV of Tom Bonnicksen on the internet, but couldn’t easily locate one; however I did find this interview with him in the High Country News..

Interesting that the word “attack” is in quotes in this “interview”;). I think accusing him of misrepresentation of his qualifications sounds kind of like an attack. Also this statement
“The opinions he presents are contradicted by all prevailing scientific data.” Really ALL? First you would have to know the entirety of data.. or at least data that is “prevailing”.. That’s just not scientist-talk.

Also, take a look at the comments on the 2008 HCN piece and some of them could have been written today.

Anyway, back to the circle of life. So whom did the HCN author ask about the Forest Service view?

Mark Nechodom, the agency’s climate science policy coordinator for the Pacific Southwest region, believes Bonnicksen overestimated the greenhouse gas emissions from the four fires he evaluated. But he also credits him for challenging scientists to find out more about how forests are affecting the carbon cycle. Bonnicksen’s work is sure to drive new scientific studies, some of them designed simply to prove him wrong. “We may disagree with Tom’s intensive management, but this is a good debate to be having, even if it makes some of us nervous,” Nechodom says.

This is the same Mark Nechodom who according to this news story from last Thursday was appointed head of California Department of Conservation, an interesting agency (website here, “managing California’s working lands”) which has responsibility for land conservation, mining, oil and gas and geology. It is a sister agency of the California Fish and Game, which received the request to list the black-backed woodpecker under the CESA. Here is the memorandum by them evaluating the petition.

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