Jon made a comment yesterday that I think is worth exploring in detail. He said:
If this is just a compilation of existing data, that’s one thing. If this will be their basis for future planning, and they are saying they are going to ignore future climate change, it might be hard to argue that’s the best available science.
I’m sure that no one wants to “ignore climate science.” On the other hand, how exactly should specific pieces of climate science be applied to a decision? Who makes that call? In the past, when the topic was less adversarial (say reforestation practices), the National Forests hired experts who would make that determination and decide what Forests should do. Now, I’m sure it won’t surprise you that even with these less-charged kinds of decisions, there was sometimes disagreement between practitioners and researchers (as well as within each community). But most of the time these did not boil over into public spats as it was taken for granted that the authority to decide lay with the local technical expert. Researchers were content to publish, and practitioners were content to pick the best approaches based on experience. Many times FS researchers and National Forests worked closely together in what we might call today “co-design and coproduction”. Today, though, we have broader questions, with more disciplines involved, so that there may not be one “expert,” and the public wants to understand the scientific questions where they have policy relevance. Both of those changes present challenges.
As I’ve argued before, we don’t have a clue as to how microclimates perceived by trees will change due to climate change, and we also don’t know how those changes might affect living trees, nor do we know how those changes might affect their offspring. Remember, climate models as used for projecting future conditions have economics as an input. I think, reading the views of experts right now, they have no clue how much the Coronavirus may set back worldwide economies and emissions. If you run out this string of cumulative cluelessness about the future, it becomes a decision question for stakeholders and decisionmakers- we don’t know, so how should that uncertainty affect our decisions? We also don’t have a clue as to whether trade policies will let an invasive diseases or insects into the US which will decimate the ponderosa pines on the BH. The future, is indeed, unknown and uncertain. In fact, there are decision sciences that research how best to decide under conditions of uncertainty.
So, what to do about our cluelessness about future tree growth? I belong to what I might call the Pete Theisen school. He was the R-6 Regional Geneticist who said that additional growth due to tree improvement would come out in future measurements, so we shouldn’t try to model it in growth and yield models. Applying that to climate change, we would measure tree growth every ten years or so (or whatever the cycle is today) and incorporate that into future decisions. What we might call “monitoring the forest plan.” As we would then instances of insects, diseases, and fires.
But as Jon points out, we also have the question of what is the “best available science?”. We’d have to ask “who decides what is best? Based on what criteria?”. Peter Williams has spoken of the concept of “research utility.” I like that approach because it involves practitioners and stakeholders in determining whether a study is useful or relevant to the decisions that, at least on public lands, are essentially public decisions.
For me, the “best science” of tree growth in the Black Hills is what people have recently measured, knowing that it could change due to climate change or a variety of other factors, unknown, uncertain or unknowable.