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?