The Sciences That Matter in Forest Policy: Will Fire Science Be the New Winner?

Last fall I was filling out a form and realized that I joined the Society of American Foresters in 1974.. which means it’s only two years to fifty.  There are many others in the TSW community from the same and earlier time periods.  It seems to me that taking the long view (at a foot a year, seedlings I planted are now fifty feet tall) might lead to seeing trends that are otherwise not obvious.

To that end, I’d like to talk about The Sciences That Matter in Policy and How They Think About Things.  When I took forest policy as an undergrad at Berkeley, forest policy seemed to be mostly in the hands of the field of economics. 

At the time, I thought forest policy was the most boring thing imaginable (the 1872 Mining Law? really?), but here I am.

Later it was determined that the ESA was a good policy tool by environmental groups, as depicted in George Hoberg’s work. So wildlife sciences became key, as for example, Chief Thomas, the Gang of Four, and so on. Yes, there are qualities of science silverback-hood* that are larger than original discipline, but I’m talking about general trends.

Then somewhere along the lines, folks (I think veg ecologists) came up with the course/fine filter approach.  Which wasn’t exactly science itself, but seemingly a common-sensical idea by scientists.  If you get have the veg as in the past, you should have the species as in the past.  So if you manage that way (course filter) you’ll have fewer endangered species that require protection beyond that. Somehow that transitioned to I said during the 2001 Planning Rule discussion.. a full employment program for vegetation ecologists.

As geneticist, I’ve never been a fan of HRV..just pragmatically, it’s too difficult to figure out how things would have been if Europeans hadn’t killed off Native Americans. Or possibly enshrining some post-Native American past as the way things ought to be.  In evolutionary biology, change through time in response to changing conditions IS the natural process.

And I think that’s to some degree behind the concept of “restoration”; if that abstraction is taken with it’s usual English meaning.  And so it has been. But sometimes “restoration” means “resilience” .. and sometimes it’s a clear concept as in the practices of watershed restoration.

But prioritizing PODs is a completely different kettle of scientific and practitioner fish.  The goal is not to restore, or even make forests climate-resilient. The goal of PODS is to help suppression people manage wildfires. It’s pretty clear who the experts are. Fire suppression folks.

If we choose to manage PODs, they will be on the basis of 1) what practicing fire suppression folks think they need including concerns of fish, wildlife, watershed, recreation and so on, with some degree of help from 2) fire modelers who include climate considerations. 

So we could be changing from vegetation ecologists being the key policy-relevant science, to fire science being the key policy-relevant science. But being a fire scientist is different from having on-the-ground fire experience. In my experience, this is a wider practitioner to academic gap than in silviculture or wildlife or watershed. So in this case, practitioner, Indigenous, and local knowledge will also be brought into the mix in specific places.

The Forest Service tried to do that with Strategic Fireshed Assessments in California as described in this post. And Don Yasuda’s presentation about “why it didn’t happen”.

Note, I’m just talking location and management of PODs here, not other efforts to promote resilience of forests to fires, for which vegetation ecology, fire science, watersheds and wildlife sciences, and climate science would also be involved. I think it might be hard for some to pass the torch of power gracefully, both with regard to different science disciplines, and perhaps most difficult, to admit that suppression practitioners and Indigenous folks have a key role to play. It’s possible, that for these projects, that the research/academic “science” card will no longer be trump.

* science silverback-hood.. I’ll define as “being a person who gets asked for their opinions in policies beyond the relatively narrow confines of their own discipline.” I call it silverback-hood because in my experience it’s been mostly males, at least in forest policy.

2 thoughts on “The Sciences That Matter in Forest Policy: Will Fire Science Be the New Winner?”

  1. “So we could be changing from vegetation ecologists being the key policy-relevant science, to fire science being the key policy-relevant science.” No, but fire science may be assuming the role that silviculture used to play in vegetation management projects. The ESA and NFMA viability requirements remain, and the science for achieving them still resides in plant and wildlife ecology.

    • Hmm.. and yet, some of the key questions around say CASPO is whether treatments to reduce the threat of burning up habitat will protect the species better than leaving the area alone. And whether and how forests will burn in not plant nor wildlife biology. And of course, fish count too. But who are the experts at looking at the probs of fires, intensity and so on?


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