Danger: “Scientification” of Local Decisions

So here I am at Vail, on the White River National Forest and what do I see in the media?

In the Aspen Daily News here:

When science is confronted by emotional reaction to a decision that is not popular, science often takes a back seat. Take the Forest Service’s decision to not allow camping on top of Independence Pass to prevent damage to the fragile tundra ecosystem during the USA

Eric Grindstaff, from Columbus, Ohio, cheers on a cyclist prior to the summit of Independence Pass near Aspen, Colo., during the fourth stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/The Aspen Daily News, Chris Council)
Pro Cycling Challenge race.

Were alternative camping sites available? Yes, but they were too inconvenient for some. As a matter of fact, space was available at developed campsites along the route Wednesday night.

Those of us involved in resource management decisions love our jobs and take them seriou

Eric Grindstaff, from Columbus, Ohio, cheers on a cyclist prior to the summit of Independence Pass near Aspen, Colo., during the fourth stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/The Aspen Daily News, Chris Council)
sly but we also have a sense of humor. That’s why we got a good laugh at the T-shirts that poked fun with “trt” (for tundra response team) and a little tundra figure’s hands in the air.

Sometimes baseless accusations are hurtled at the agency and a cub reporter may find it easy to interview a few disgruntled spectators. Our desire is to get as much information as possible to the public through the media in a transparent manner so people understand why and how we arrive at decisions.

The United States Forest Service mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forest and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.

“Caring for the land and serving people,” best captures that mission.

Those words fit well with the choice I made, along with many of my generation, to pursue a career in the management of America’s public lands. My decision was influenced by reading Wallace Stegner’s “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian.” At that time, if a word had to be picked to describe what I would become by pursuing such a dream it would be “conservationist.”

Conservation laws were passed mandating how to best care for the land and serve people. In the Forest Service we also have regulations, executive direction and congressional intent to guide our decisions.

Decisions are made taking into account 13 guiding principles that help realize our mission. One of those principles state that, “We recognize and accept that some conflict is natural and we strive to deal with it professionally.”

Many of the complex problems faced by the White River National Forest decision makers involve multiple conflicting objectives. Conflict handled professionally often leads to better collaborative decisions.

If decisions are made by caring for the land and serving people then they are appropriate. However, balancing both these priorities is not easy. Popularity is not part of the equation.

Conflict in today’s land management arena centers primarily on recreational use of public land. The focus is often narrowly reduced to “my use, my way.” Instead of “re-creating” their outdoor experience by renewing their spirit, many people become vehemently entrenched into what becomes a siege mentality that leaves no way for reason.

It becomes “my right to do as I please wherever I want to whenever I can” with no regard for any long-term caring for the land. What is missing is a willingness to modify behavior for what is appropriate to consider in making good land management decisions. Being inconvenienced trumps conserving resources.

Two of the other guiding principles that the Forest Service uses are: we use an ecological approach to the multiple-use management of the National Forests and grasslands, and we use the best scientific knowledge in making decisions and select the most appropriate technologies in the management of resources.

The Pro Cycling Challenge wasn’t our first rodeo. When we get thrown off the bronco, or in this case thrown under the bus, we smile, get up and dust ourselves off, ready to meet the challenges facing present and future generations.

Bill Kight is the public affairs officer of the White River National Forest.

Sharon’s take:
Guess what, Bill, whether we allow or do not allow camping, it is a “values” decisions- it is not a “scientific” decision. I happen to agree with this decision, but I don’t know how you can call it “scientific.” Please leave science, and scientists out of the rationalization for whomever’s appropriately value-based decision.

4 thoughts on “Danger: “Scientification” of Local Decisions”

  1. Well of course Sharon, it all comes down to “values” when we have conflicts of wants from various resource users. Our USFS uses scientific “values” such as ecological principles that would protect the alpine tundra. The ignorant public that want to trample and camp and crap on this fragile system don’t understand the issue, and most don’t really care. All they want is “fun” and games.
    So I agree with you that values are the core issue. When mills and loggers want to cut trees from the riparian zone they don’t recognize the water, fish, soil and other ecological values that might be threatened. They are valuing the logs and lumber and jobs. They believe their values are more important than the other largely invisible values. Very simple. It is a tradeoff that is easy for them (loggers or recreationists, they are interchangable). But mostly the USFS values (hopefully) are based on science, certainly more than personal preference of some DFR. So you both are right.

    • Hi Ed: It seems like you prefer (“value”) human-free environments rather than environments with people in them (or at least environments with people other than yourself and maybe a few select companions in them.) Crapping or camping in the tundra is not necessarily bad for the environment, and the combination of fertilizer and disturbance may even be good effects, so far as biodiversity (“scientific value?”) is concerned. Then add on the human spiritual values, the gathering and use of local fuels, and other potential positive effects to the environment (including humans) and you have a far more complex equation than the standard knee-jerk “people bad/no people good” environmental “ethic.” Same with sunlight on a stream and kids playing in the water. You think that is bad, I think that is good, and to term our differences as based on “scientific values” is silly. Whether you use scientific information to rationalize your own perspective, or not.

  2. Bob, you seem to have a weird concept of biodiversity. An ecosystem as rare as a high country meadow or tundra does not need to be encouraged to be more “diversified”. I have to believe that you are joshing with me!

    My personal environmental ethic is not as limited as you might think. But people and their machines don’t need to trample or use every acre of planet Earth. Some undisturbed sites are “good”. Camping and crapping in mountain tundra is bad!

    I like sunlight on a stream (as long as it isn’t created by long strips of continuous timber removal that results in spiked water temps that the native, wild trout need to survive), and I love to see children playing and enjoying the water. They can enjoy the clean, cold waters under shade as well. Afterwards the warm campfire will feel really good.

    We obviously don’t agree on many things. I don’t consider myself a preservationist. But as I watch the interior PNW explode with more and more people, with their ATVs, 4x4s and such, and old hunting/fishing spots totally gone (under pavement and houses) or otherwise ruined, I do value protection of what little is still somewhat “natural”. (I have learned that in this forum I can’t use the word “pristine”, so “natural” will have to do. I think you get the gist of my meaning.)

    And if the USFS must use some “science” facts or rationalizations to prohibit such unneeded activities as camping on the tundra when there are developed campgrounds available, I support them fully. You almost sound like some folk I have met who actually believe that Multiple Use on the national forests means that you should allow all uses on each acre of forest. But you and I know that is silly, right?

  3. Ed, I appreciate your honesty. I grew up in Southern California, and I too have seen treasured places (albeit not treed) become developed. I agree that some places need fewer people and a place for quiet. (Of course when you have lots of people, wildernesses get rationed and you might not be able to go there).

    I think what Bob and I are trying to say is that in any specific place and time, scientific information does not tell us what the land should look like. The climate is changing and we can certainly leave things alone, and should in spots. How many? Where? That’s not a science question.

    If we value certain species, for example, a science question might be “under what conditions are they most likely to continue?”. But deciding that, say, lynx is an important species is a values question.

    Perhaps I haven’t been as clear as I could be about why it matters so much. If it is a values question, it is decided through the political process in all its mess, passion, and furor of different ideas and values. If it is a science question, it is decided by a select (not diverse in many ways) priesthood without the voices of the people who have to live with the decision. I am attached to our form of government (despite what some might say) and do not want to live in a technocracy.

    Also, another problem with scientists overreaching is that even people who don’t know much science have a fine sense of being bamboozled and then start to mistrust scientists’ motives more broadly. So these kinds of uses of science ultimately are bad for the scientific enterprise and people’s trust in scientific findings. See the climate change discussions for an excellent example, IMHO.


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