The fight over forest recovery

Credit: Mark Ahn

Last December, Oregon State University forest scientist Dan Donato prepared an article for publication in Science indicating that the practice of forest recovery was not really a help to nature, and immediately found himself at the center of a heated debate. 

Before Donato’s findings made it to press, a group of his OSU colleagues launched an aggressive campaign to stop the article’s publication.

“The best way to start a bar fight in the Northwest is to mention forest recovery,” said Donato.

It sounds like common sense: After a blaze razes a stretch of wooded area, why not clear out any remaining trees and replant new ones? This way, the timber industry picks up a tidy profit from everything left standing, and the forest seemingly gets to start with a green bill of health.

Apparently, Congress agrees with that logic: Last month, the House voted 243-to-182 for a bill that would subsidize as well as ease restrictions on the practice of forest recovery on public lands. If the bill follows a similar track in the Senate, the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act could be on the books this year, even before the leaves start to fall.

The bill’s supporters claim its relatively broad support follows naturally from hundreds of studies validating the practice. But Donato and other ecologists claim that the science is skewed by the influence of the timber industry.

According to Donato’s research, clumps of healthy trees left after forest fires are 70% more effective at reseeding surrounding areas than humans are. Further, harvesting burnt trees leaves lots of scrap twigs and broken branches behind—an ideal kindling for yet another fire.

These findings met with vehement disagreement from other scientists at OSU. The most outspoken of these critics was forest engineer John Sessions. Part of his objection, Sessions said, was that Donato’s research focused on a limited area from a 2002, 500,000-acre blaze in northern California and southern Oregon, so the results might not be widely applicable. 

Sessions went as far as going on a popular Oregon conservative radio talk show, where he demeaned Donato’s research and announced the campaign to halt its publication. He and his fellow antagonists wrote letters to the editors of Science demanding that they not print the paper.

“This is really irresponsible science,” Sessions said. “We have dozens of other studies from many other conditions that show that [human] seeding works as well if not better [than natural reseeding]. And if the recovery is performed properly, the workers clean any waste that could be a fire hazard.”

According to Sessions, Donato’s research also ignores economic factors. If forest recovery had taken place for the whole burn area immediately after the 2002 blaze, two billion board feet of timber could have been recovered, delivering eight to 10 jobs per million board feet by Sessions’ calculations.

“You don’t want to send the wrong kind of message when it can rob communities of that kind of economic benefit,” he said.

The aggressiveness of the attempts to preempt the paper prompted a sharp counterresponse from environmentalists, who object to human-led forest recovery because burnt forestland provides a unique ecosystem upon which certain plants and animals depend. 

“Wildfires are an important part of life for the plants and animals involved,” said Richard Hutto, director of the Avian Science Center at the University of Montana. “They’ve got the routine perfected, and there’s not much we can do but stay out of their way.” 

Six species of woodpecker live exclusively on burnt forest, eating the grubs of beetles that seek out the still-smoldering embers of burnt woods as a warm place to lay their eggs. Species ranging from bats that burrow under burnt bark to arboreal frogs that are drawn by the rich soil similarly thrive in the scorched earth.

“There are a lot of points of view that get overlooked a little too easily by the scientists that we are supposed to trust on this issue,” said Oregon’s Democratic State Senator Charlie Ringo

Shortly after learning of the efforts to suppress Donato’s research, Ringo filed a Freedom of Information Act petition to acquire thousands of emails from OSU’s School of Forestry

“We found really shockingly blatant bias on behalf of the timber industry,” Ringo said, citing one message from OSU’s vice president to the College of Forestry’s dean, which contained the phrases “our partners in industry” and “our nemeses in sustainability.” 

OSU is currently conducting a review of its relationship with the timber industry, which contributes 10% of the university’s funding. Bias like this may very well be a widespread problem among research entities that rely on the timber industry’s contributions. 

“There is good research out there, but it gets suppressed or overlooked,” said Dominick DellaSala, an expert in forest ecology for the World Wildlife Fund.

DellaSala is one of 169 environmentalists who wrote a letter to Congress in April, urging its members to consider research that argues that the human-led forest recovery process is detrimental and unprofitable. DellaSala’s group calculated a $14 million dollar loss would have occurred in an instance where Sessions had calculated a $17 million dollar profit. One major difference in his and Sessions’ estimates, DellaSala said, is that he included the cost of helicopters that would have been needed to remove timber where roads could not be created.

Additionally forest recovery would not create as many jobs as expected, DellaSala suggested. Wood mills typically set aside their current supply of timber when additional sources come in, creating a backlog of timber. The backlog drives timber prices down, deflating profits. 

“One thing that everyone agrees on is that if this bill is made into law, it will dramatically change the lifecycle of our county’s forest ecosystems,” DellaSala said. “We owe it to our environment to have a clear, unbiased perspective of what our influence will be.”

Download podcast

Originally published June 14, 2006


Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM