The Case of the Invisible Natural Resource Practitioners

BAER team for Pipeline Fire

The role of experts seems to be the theme of the week.  This is a much broader political science question, of course- as we have seen with Covid.  But let’s burrow into our little neck of the woods. This may take a few posts.

Jan said yesterday in a comment:

Listen to AND BE RESPECTFUL to the public who are stakeholders in the forest. Don’t tell us that because we don’t have forestry credentials, we have no right to speak.

I hope that everyone is listened to respectfully, and everyone has the right to speak.  At the same time, it seems to me that experts have a unique value in laying out options for the public.  Yesterday Steve posted a piece about academics versus engineers.- they are both experts in different senses- the Curry piece talks about differences in accountability.  And Andy Stahl said that firefighters’ experiences with retardant were “anecdotal” without published scientific papers.  So does field observation and experience count as 0 with published paper as 100?  That too easily transfer “the knowledge keeping” to people further away from the real world (IMHO).  Do we feel the same way about, say, doctors?  If there is a gap between practitioners’ observations and academics, whether medicine, or forests, I’d say that that’s a science situation that shouts “watch out”.  Or at least a joint exploration of why that is.

In DellaSala’s op-ed on the Santa Fe project, he said:

My search for the truth in the Santa Fe National Forest began some three years ago during site visits to this remarkable forest.

Frankly, I was shocked about how much of it was being degraded by overzealous thinning projects resulting in weed-infested savannas lacking in forest complexity. As an “outsider,” I come with a fresh pair of problem-solving eyes, free of government research dollars that can otherwise obscure such fact-finding expeditions.

What’s missing from this and many other discussions is the role of the natural resource specialist.  These are the people who work there every day, archaeologists, fuels folks, suppression folks, wildlife bios, hydrologists, botanists, soils, silviculture, fish bios, engineers, pathologists and entomologists, range cons, minerals and lands folks, recreation and so on. Scattered around are also economists and social scientists.

Then there are the many State folks, and Extension folks who have the same kinds of expertise.  There’s a vast seething mass of specialists who agree and disagree and all work in the same places and interact with each other through time and space- and who are often missing from the “science” dialogue.

Now, I have heard (as a NEPA RO and WO person involved in various “improving NEPA” efforts) lots of stories about ID teams, so I know that many are not perfect.. how could they be? They are composed of human beings.  Still, my own experiences were about 1) learning the whole of the system (sure we had courses in all that, but it’s not the same), and 2) listening to other experts and having to agree on what’s a document.  In some cases, say, the hydrologist and fish bio would disagree about stream impacts, or the silviculturist and the botanist about plants. And we would have to work those out by discussion.

Note that in the DellaSala op-ed, practitioners seem to be missing from the picture.  It’s research scientist vs. scientist, and people who disagree with him do it because they are influenced by “federal research dollars.”(More on that claim in the next post).  But where are the practitioners?

Now I’m not necessarily just picking on DellaSala for this.  When I worked in the Forest Service R&D branch in the WO, there were some co-workers who conceived of  “scientists and managers” and left out the NFS and FHP specialists from the discussion.  Meanwhile there are many, many scientists, NGO, academic and federal who understand and support resource specialists and their needs.

To do a thought experiment, imagine my going to the ..say.. Umpqua on some site visits and determining that they were doing things wrong- because I could come with “a fresh set of eyes” unencumbered by any funding that would obscure “the facts.”  I couldn’t do that because I would have to talk to too many specialists to understand what was going on, what the choices were, what the history was and so on. Now  I’m not saying that I am humble and DellaSala is.. not. What I’m saying is that my experience on the ground gives me the background to know that understanding any place is a complex exercise, and it’s only by much listening and observing, and disagreeing that people can work toward the mutually agreeable tentative conclusions and followup that make up adaptive management.  Which is even more important due to the uncertain impacts of climate change.

And of course, specialists, line officers, researchers and the public can and do engage with each other with mutual respect. It happens every day, and is likely to be more common than not. Which circles back to the concern of stakeholders that specialists move too much to understand the area.  And Jack Ward Thomas’s idea of allowing excellent specialists to be promoted in place.  Frankly, I don’t see how we can claim any management is really “science-based” without supporting the workforce that is responsible for designing and implementing projects.

I sometimes I was not supported by my bosses to take part in professional societies, or for training in my specialty.  On the other hand, in the old days Region 6 funded me for post-doc work at North Carolina State, and funded advanced studies for other geneticists.  I wonder how supported people feel today at being where the science rubber meets the proverbial road?

7 thoughts on “The Case of the Invisible Natural Resource Practitioners”

  1. For sure, personal experience counts. When I hire a plumber to fix a pipe, I expect that person to have personal experience fixing a lot of pipes. Do I expect my plumber to be an expert in fluid dynamics, materials science, or chemical toxicity? Of course not. But I sure hope that those fields of scientific knowledge were incorporated into the selection of pipe and adhesive materials, plumbing system building codes, and pipe manufacturing processes.

  2. Nicely written Sharon. You covered a lot of ground, but let me focus on this: “And of course, specialists, line officers, researchers and the public can and do engage with each other with mutual respect. It happens every day, and is likely to be more common than not.”

    That’s true, I have seen respectful engagement between all these parties, but I have seen a lot of less than respectful engagement too. Not including 11 of my 13 years in the field, I worked primarily in what might be called the agency-public interface. I’ll get to observations tied to that in a moment, but first I want to talk about interdisciplinary team (ID team) meetings. I greatly enjoyed participating in ID team meetings. The wide range of specialized knowledge shared was always educational. I did observe several, what I would call, disrespectful, unprofessional flare ups between members though. But, what would you expect, the meetings were composed of imperfect people. As I have mentioned before, one of the things I found myself doing over and over again was responding to specialists saying some iteration of, “We are the experts and we know what needs to be done.” To which I would respond, “You are the experts on the science, but you are not the expert on what needs to be done. Decisions on what needs to be done are based on values; science only informs.” That isn’t an original idea, Jack Ward Thomas wrote a nice paper about it.

    In general, ID teams do a good job of putting together technical documents. Whereas by law, they are supposed to be written in “plain language,” they aren’t because they also have to be defensible in court. At least that was the argument made to me multiple times. I had many battles (respectful) with project leads and line officers on the level of public outreach for proposed projects and how media releases were worded. Many project leads and line officers wanted to minimize public outreach to just what needed to be done legally, because in their opinions, the more public interest (thus comments), the slower and more complicated everything got. I also found that mentioning doing public meetings was often (but not always) met with groans and resistance. The most common argument against doing public meetings was work/life balance related. That’s a hard one to argue against.

    To summarize the above and things I haven’t spoken of, I personally feel that in my experience, the Forest Service struggles with effectively communicating with, and listening to, the public and this can lead to lack of trust and project resistance. Yet, I’ve listened to many staff in the WO, RO and at the forest level pat themselves on the backs for their communication greatness. If only the public agreed. The reasons for the communications challenges is too long to go into on this comment.

    Lastly, one final thought on the part of “outsiders” with “fresh eyes.” Sometimes those fresh eyes, see things others don’t, but often it is just a lack of understanding of the goals of a project and how ecosystems work. A robust forest information/education program can do a lot to reduce that lack of knowledge. Such a program also needs to acknowledge lessons learned when a project didn’t work as planned.

    • I agree with the robust forest information/education program and acknowledging lessons learned.. Of course, people will still disagree. It would be interesting to figure out “what forests do it best?” and ask them how they do it…

  3. And people continue to discount the ability to apply site-specific science to actual forest stands, independently of expert scientists. No one considers the abilities of the people who make so many actual decisions, every single workday. We spend so much money, with very little of it spent on training the people who decide which individual trees live and die.

  4. ” As an “outsider,” I come with a fresh pair of problem-solving eyes, free of government research dollars that can otherwise obscure such fact-finding expeditions”
    -Dominick A. DellaSala

    This has got to be one of the most oft repeated, arrogant, ignorant, lines uttered by so many. The other side, the non-profit, enviro, alarmist, agenda driven tax-free-non-profit (mentioned twice for a reason) side, is entirely free from financial motivation? Free from egotistical motivation? Motivation of notoriety, or feeling like “mission accomplished” was accomplished?

    The bitter part of me says that the ‘scientists’ who say this just couldn’t cut it working for a public agency, and/or didn’t want to do the work of getting tenure at a University, or did get tenure but don’t want to be forced to ever do research that doesn’t align with their personal values.

    The realistic side of me says, the Non-Profit tax free game is a good game these days.

    Especially when you can point to better scientists and say “they’re biased because of who pays them” [All of us!!! Taxpayers!!!], and then ask for more donations, instead of producing something defensible and real at the expense of the tax payers.

    • Working in the stream restoration field (on the Santa Fe and other NM forests), I have to develop mutually respectful working relations with cattle permitees. If I don’t my projects fail, plain and simple.
      The more I learn about ranching and – granting the real impacts of cows on the landscape – the regenerative results careful management can produce, I get increasingly frustrated at the term “welfare ranchers”.
      Mainly because there are so many ranchers in NM that are in constant battle with poverty and its draining pull on the youth of rural Hispanic villages, people whose circumstance limits access to college and other things we take for granted, and whose predominantly small herds can make the difference between going on welfare or not.
      How they treat the range – and the calf crop it can produce – makes the same difference. Of course some do it better and some do it worse, just as some hunters leave no (little) trace and others leave their firepits full of trash and ride over hell and gone on ATVs.
      But we never hear the term “welfare recreationists” or, amazingly in the case of some frequent-filer organizations, “welfare NGOs”. I think it’s about time we do.


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