Anatomy of a Scandal
An Epilogue to the Salwasser/Donato Controversy at the OSU College of ForestryCode
By Sean M. Smith

“The truth has a horrible sweat to survive in this world, but a piece of nonsense, however absurd on its face, always seems to prosper.”
H. L. Mencken

A well-liked and soft-spoken college dean runs afoul of the establishment merely by pursuing the truth as he sees it. In having the pure cheek to state his views on an issue fraught with political hair triggers, he raises the ire of zealous ideologues. For his trouble, he is widely defamed by his detractors and their media brethren in creed, accused by a powerful politician of being a toady for the forces of bourgeois greed and exploitation and, with no apparent sense of irony, of stifling “academic freedom.”

He apologizes and backpedals almost immediately, but this only adds blood to the water. By the time the boat stops rocking, he has narrowly escaped losing his position at the university.

The CliffsNotes to a novel about Castro’s Cuba? No, this would be an entirely accurate–if abbreviated–summary of the recent travails of Hal Salwasser, dean of the OSU College of Forestry (COF).

Prior to becoming a scandal magnet, Salwasser’s career stood out only for its dull repetition of accomplishment and distinction. After obtaining a B.A. in Biology and a Ph.D. in Wildland Resource Science, he went to work for the U. S. Forest Service, first as a wildlife ecologist, then as a natural resource analyst. He quit the Forest Service for a time, working in the interim teaching courses on wildlife and natural resource conservation policy and ecosystem management at the University of Montana. He then returned to the Forest Service, serving as regional forester for the Northern Region in Missoula and as director of the Pacific Southwest Research Station before taking his current position at OSU in 2000. Along the way, he earned numerous awards and distinctions for his service and was published frequently in scholarly and professional journals. Recently, somewhat late in life, he has become a new father who dotes on his young family.

Salwasser first became a marked man when he stumbled into the crosshairs of preservationist firebrands for the loathsome sin of testifying in favor of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA, enacted in 2003). Certain colleagues posited that it was clearly inappropriate for someone in his position to opine on pending legislation. After a surprisingly brief time plucking this chord, however, even they grasped the silliness of such a position. It is, after all, difficult for a group of professional political activists–who hold day jobs professing at universities only to make their Subaru and Volvo payments–to credibly characterize Salwasser’s activities as somehow untoward. No, they would need to find more solid ground on which to lay the apostate bastard low. But how?

Depending on one’s perspective, the answer arrived either through Salwasser’s blunder or through circumstances carefully timed and orchestrated by those whose ire he had earlier aroused. In either case, the whole state of affairs centered around two events back in January–the advance publication in the online version of the journal Science, called Science Express, of a paper (the Salvage Paper) by a group of graduate students, OSU faculty and a former U.S. Forest Service research scientist, and the pendency in Congress of yet another package of forest health legislation known as the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act (FERRA). The Salvage Paper summarized the results of field work conducted in a few salvage-logged units in the area in Southwest Oregon affected by the Biscuit Fire of 2002. The substance and purpose of FERRA has been thoroughly covered in these pages. So too has the disagreement within the COF over whether or not FERRA would be good public policy.

Briefly, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with its provisions, FERRA’s purpose is to remove many of the administrative hurdles to projects intended to salvage dead, dying or severely root- sprung timber and to speed up forest recovery operations following a “catastrophic event,” as defined within the Act. It bears many similarities to its predecessor, HFRA, but delegates clearer authority and discretion to federal land management agencies in the planning and implementation of salvage and rehabilitation projects. If enacted, FERRA would better allow these types of projects to be completed within a timetable conducive to retaining more of the commercial value of dead and damaged taxpayer-owned timber.

The Salvage Paper made over-broad conclusions to the effect that the types of salvage and rehabilitation work envisioned in FERRA might actually delay forest recovery and increase the danger of subsequent fires. These conclusions were not placed in any sort of context, and also absent was any consideration of the extensive and complex resource management rules and other guidance that would be observed in a salvage/restoration operation.

Indeed, even a cursory review of the many post-publication criticisms of the OSU Salvage Paper strongly suggests that it was flawed in many critical respects. The extent to which it may or may not have been will be the subject of debate for years to come, if not forever. Work has been published, and still more is in progress, explaining why certain of the authors’ assumptions, methods, inferences, and conclusions fail scientific scrutiny. On Aug. 4, Science published two critiques of the paper, one by nine scientists from OSU and the Forest Service and one by Rep. Brian Baird (who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a strong science and statistics background, and who had already publicly criticized the Salvage Paper on several specified grounds). From the standpoint of many COF senior faculty, who had spent a good portion of their careers studying reforestation in Southwest Oregon culminating in a much more long-term, geographically broad study of post-catastrophic forest rehabilitation known as Forestry Intensified Research (FIR, 1978-1991), the sweeping conclusions of the Salvage Paper simply did not ring true.

This article does not seek to enumerate and detail the alleged shortcomings of the Salvage Paper. Further dissection of the study is not really the interesting story. Salwasser’s treatment at the hands of the media, a certain state senator and his colleagues is.

The oft-parroted wisdom has it that Salwasser, using his clout as dean, threw down thunderbolts upon a meek and hapless grad student for daring to publish a study questioning COF-sanctioned dogma. Should anyone bother to actually read Salwasser’s initial response to the Salvage Paper on Jan. 11, which conveniently, is in written form and widely available, such allegations of heavy-handedness stretch credulity. Salwasser merely cautioned against reading too much into the report and leaning too heavily on it to reach sweeping policy conclusions. There was good reason for this. For one thing, none of the report’s authors were foresters. None had detailed knowledge of the sorts of management prescriptions and policy underpinnings that would be observed in any actual forest health operations that might be performed in the Biscuit area. Relative to the half-million acres within the Biscuit burn, the areas studied were small and of a narrow range of site conditions. In sum, the study lacked data of sufficient breadth, both in time span and geographical scope, to support conclusions as broad as those listed in the brief paper posted on Science Express. The limitations of the study were particularly apparent when contrasted with the knowledge and experience gained from the region-wide FIR study.

But Salwasser’s letter was plenty solicitous toward the team that conducted the study and wrote the Salvage Paper: “Controversy in science is not new and is not necessarily a bad thing. The highly focused attention that controversy attracts often works to intensify scientific efforts to resolve the issue. The Science paper may achieve this. We hope it does.”

Salwasser also made his intentions quite clear at the outset regarding any notion that he or others at the COF might wish to quash the study team’s work: “In the university community, academic freedom is vital to ensuring an environment where new or contradictory ideas can be freely expressed without threat of reprisal. It is akin to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.” (Emphasis added.)

Though never publicly expressed, it is also likely Salwasser had legitimate concerns, as one charged with overseeing the COF’s funding sources, that the Salvage study team published the Science Express paper in contravention of the College’s grant agreement with the BLM. The $300,000 grant, which funded the study, contained terms clearly prohibiting any of the funds from being used to lobby Congress. Because the original version of the summary paper released for publication referred explicitly to H.R. 4200 (FERRA), it triggered an investigation by the Government Accounting Office and caused BLM to temporarily suspend further funding (this was later reinstated). The authors pleaded ignorant to this prohibition at a subsequent hearing held in Medford in response to grilling by Reps. Greg Walden and Baird. The original version, which with highly questionable motives referred to pending legislation, is still “out there” in circulation on the Internet. What was done cannot be undone, owing to the expeditious and poorly reviewed and edited manner of publication.

Allegations of censorship began gathering steam when a group of three U.S. Forest Service scientists and six COF professors, the latter headed up by preeminent forest scientists John Sessions and Mike Newton, contacted Science with some concerns they had about the Salvage Paper. This apparently agitated Science Editor-in-Chief Donald Kennedy, who immediately started shouting about “censorship.” Kennedy’s shrill reaction was quickly taken up in chorus by OSU faculty and others. These allegations were utterly false. For one thing, the summary of the salvage study posted on Science Express could not have been censored by the time its critics within COF contacted the magazine–it had already been released and remains available online in both its original and edited forms. Secondly, nobody at COF even suggested that it shouldn’t have been published or that publication should be suspended or quashed. What actually occurred was as follows: The Sessions group wrote a letter to Science proposing two alternatives—either (1) Science delay publication in its print edition of the Salvage Paper until certain points could be clarified or re-worked (Remember, only a one-page summary of the study’s conclusions had been published at that point, and only on the Science Express website.), or (2) the Sessions group be allowed to simultaneously publish an essay rebutting some of the Salvage Paper’s overbroad conclusions.

While Salwasser was kept informed of the Sessions group’s activities, he neither took part in nor sanctioned them and was not a signatory to the letter. That the Salvage Paper be censored or suppressed was never proposed by anyone within the COF or elsewhere. Kennedy nonetheless repeated this false allegation on more than one occasion. He also indulged in a few gratuitous snipes in the press about the Bush Administration’s hostility toward science (in response to the brief suspension of BLM funding), clearly displaying his dispassionate, scientific impartiality.

A group of senior COF faculty making modest entreaties to Science in an attempt to inject some rigor and perspective into a published article bearing the COF’s imprimatur hardly strikes one as the outrage proclaimed by the media, particularly given that the study could be interpreted to sharply contradict the vast body of work already produced by the same institution. The study was produced by a team of “ologists,” non-foresters with little or no knowledge of the actual management directives that would be in place for a real-life salvage and restoration operation in a national forest. Publishing broad, unqualified conclusions from such a study provides very little in the way of context.

True, Sessions et al could have simply tried to publish rebuttal papers, rather than attempt to influence the timing and manner of the publication of the Salvage Paper. In fact, much has been made of this by their critics in the media and the scientific community. Unfortunately for the Sessions group, however, none of them has the slightest control over the editorial content of Science. There was no guarantee at the time they were expressing their concerns that Science or any other publication would have run them. Indeed, the relative rarity of publication by Science of articles on the topic of forestry was frequently touted in praise for the study. Normally if such work even gets published, it appears in specialty or regional journals with far narrower readership. It also would have gotten much more thorough peer review by actual foresters who know of which they speak and in final form would probably have reached far less sweeping conclusions.

The Sessions group and, by implication, Salwasser were thoroughly excoriated with howls of censorship from the media and from colleagues sympathetic to the study team’s viewpoint. The response was vastly out of proportion to any of the actions of those who took issue with the report. In a civilized society, we voice our differences in public debate. We don’t railroad those we disagree with, attempt to deprive them of their livelihoods, and sabotage their careers.

And on a planet ruled by reason, a gaggle of professors claiming they were acting in defense of “academic freedom,” all the while calling for a colleague’s head for merely expressing an opinion, would be laughed out of their marble halls. The OSU Faculty Handbook directs faculty members to “seek and state the truth as he or she sees it.” Conspicuously absent is the warning clause that should accompany this: “But this may be applied selectively for reasons of politics and/or ideology, and when it is, be prepared to defend your job.”

This is an instance of a group of students and professors wishing to make a big splash by getting published in Science, and of Science being all too willing to ignore the rooms full of existing scholarship on post-catastrophic forestry in order to headline a study affirming the particular world view of a particular editor. Both Science and the paper’s authors rigorously promoted the article even before it appeared online. The press scooped it up and breathlessly sang its praises as well. It can hardly be said that Sessions and his colleagues (and Salwasser in his Jan. 11 letter) were off base in their concerns that much ado would be made of the study, and that its already overwrought conclusions would cause confusion among the public and snowball into a media frenzy. This is exactly how the thing went down.

By February, ex-Oregon Sierra Club director and State Sen. Charlie Ringo, a Beaverton Democrat, was demanding Salwasser’s email records. Then in April, Ringo grilled Salwasser in a Senate hearing, lambasting him for being a toady of the–gasp!–timber industry. He subsequently set about to introduce legislation that would limit the COF’s involvement in political matters that would affect that much reviled industry. Ringo wasn’t the only one leveling this criticism at Salwasser, though it is equally absurd no matter where it comes from.

Forestry is a science that evolved from and is inextricably tied to serving the needs of society, thus its close ties to the people, jobs and businesses involved with forest products. It entails active forest management and promotion of forest health for the purpose of maximizing the productivity of forests. The COF was formed for the very purpose of turning out foresters for the benefit of society by training them to actively manage public, private, commercial, and non- commercial forests. It has a Forest Engineering department, which teaches students how to manage different types of harvest operations. In short, it makes no more sense to criticize the dean of the College of Forestry for having an interest in matters affecting the timber industry than it would to criticize an agriculture college for having ties to farmers, ranchers and food processing concerns, or an engineering school for having ties to high-tech industries. This is an inane, dead-end criticism.

The true germ of this controversy is the culture war going on within the COF itself. What has slowly happened to that institution over the years mirrors what has occurred within land management agencies such as the BLM and the Forest Service–a culture change in which “ologists” hold increasing sway and foresters are increasingly marginalized. In the case of the Forest Service, the bulk of this change occurred during the 1990s, when the agency seemingly abandoned its statutory responsibility to generate forest products for the benefit of the nation. By the time the Service tried to change direction and revitalize both its green and salvage timber sale programs under Dale Bosworth, very few foresters qualified to do the necessary planning and layout of harvest operations were left in the agency. And as the ranks and influence of foresters have shrunk, the new armies of risk-averse “ologists” within the Forest Service and its sister agencies (in particular, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) have learned effectively how to throw up walls of obstruction that trump the efforts of the few foresters who remain. Similarly, “ologists” have encroached on the prerogatives of foresters within COF, and the differences in the values and politics of these two groups have come to a head in the form of the present controversy. Underlying all of this is a battle for control over who gets to define the very mission and purpose of COF. Of late, and for reasons nobody could credibly characterize as legitimate, the foresters have been getting beaten up quite badly.

The entire matter culminated in a vote of confidence in Salwasser’s leadership being taken by faculty and students, a vote he fortunately survived.

An affable bear of a guy, Salwasser. Just the sort of person an increasingly belligerent politburo of fanatics has no qualms about sliming, maligning and running over.

BrainstormNW - October 2006

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