Ignoring Science

Geologist Ellen Bishop is frustrated. A formidable, 3-inch thick, 1,400-page federal document rests at her elbow. The tome, prepared by representatives of both the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, describes the results of a massive study of 72 million acres of Western public lands. Bishop had hoped that the report -- a draft of an environmental impact statement -- would point out ways the land management agencies could curb the impending environmental disaster of the region -- but in reading it what she found instead was a distinct disregard of scientific findings and more federal agency "business as usual."The area the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Mangagement Project (ICBEMP) analyzed included the east sides of Oregon and Washington; all of Idaho and portions of Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada -- 25 percent of all public land in the 48 states. The purpose of the three-year, $35 million federal project -- requested by President Clinton in 1993 -- was to gather and analyze scientific and economic data about the area from a wide range of federal and independent experts. The project was charged with developing "a scientifically sound, ecosystem-based management strategy" for the prescribed area.Bishop's outrage over the document comes from the fact that the panel that devised the study's final recommendations -- a panel made up primarily of Forest Service personnel -- virtually ignored the scientific input of the project's own science team."There's been a huge disconnect between the science and what the study allows, recommends and provides guidance for," says Bishop, a coordinator with the Columbia River BioRegion Campaign, a group of more than 40 environmental groups whose scientists provided input to the ICBEMP study. "The plan does not pay attention to respected science. And the plan won't work because it continues doing same old things that have got us where we are today."Bishop recites a litany of these "disconnects": Whereas the documention provided by participating scientists clearly indicated that the healthiest forest areas contain the fewest roads, and that roadless areas are critical to sustaining native fish and water resources, the implementation plan not only allows further road building, but does not restrict building roads into or logging sensitive or current roadless areas.Whereas the science shows a "startling" drop in the number of old growth stands, she says, the plan contains no protection for old growth trees. And although the science showed that decades of logging had led to increased sedimentation in streams, degraded water quality and poor forest health -- and in fact stated that "in no case" would any increased disturbance to these lands have beneficial effect -- the plan recommends logging (redefined as "thinning" or "overstory removal") as the preferred remedy to restore forestlands to health. The plan calls for doubling the amount of logging currently currently allowed throughout the 72 million acre area.John Rhodes, a hydrologist with the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission, charges that the plan overlooked findings that have long been accepted in mainstream science. "If the people devising the recommendations had been undergraduates completing an assignment, I would have flunked them based on a lack of thoroughness," he says.For instance, mountains of studies exist showing that grazing and mining have extensive and adverse effects on fish populations, he says. But the study contains no "rigorous analysis" of the effects of grazing in those 72 million acres, even though 90 percent of the basin is affected by grazing."Good science has come to the same conclusion -- that we have to drastically reduce grazing until the affected lands recover," he says. Still, he says, the ICBEMP plan indicated the rangelands can somehow recover without reducing grazing numbers. "That's way beyond the pale of anything that exists in the literature."Andy Stahl, director of the Eugene-based Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), says the plan blatantly contradicts itself in terms of the economics of the region. In one section, he says, the plan clearly states "that 95 percent of the economic value of federal lands is recreation," putting the value of grazing at $18 million, logging at $356 million, and recreation at $2.1 billion. However, when it came to the final recommendations, says Stahl, the plan clearly favors the Forest Service's status quo- supporting logging and grazing ahead of all other uses of the land.The authors of the final plan had plenty of good science at their disposal, he says. "But all the good stuff was ignored. They picked and chose scientific conclusions that met their preconceived notions."Selective ScienceThe tactic of ignoring science that conflicts or gets in the way of what a business or corporation wants to accomplish is not new. Ever since the industrial age started greasing its gears and wheels with petroleum products, lead, copper, aluminum and other natural and man-made chemicals, corporations have twisted, obfuscated, watered-down or simply falsified scientific findings to allow unhealthy, dangerous -- and usually profitable -- practices and products to thrive in the marketplace.Peter Montague, editor of Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly, documents in depth how corporate history is rife with scenarios in which corporate executives, their spokespersons or their lawyers deny scientifically based links between cigarettes and lung cancer; between formaldehyde and cancer; between nerve damage and lead absorption; between certain herbicides and pesticides and birth defects and cancers; between chlorofluorocarbons and depletion of the ozone layer; between dioxin and a host of depleting physical symptoms.As environmentalists have found, corporations may have perfected the art of manipulating or ignoring science, but other entities -- government agencies and the military, for instance -- have learned to selectively "use" scientific findings.Local biologist Mary O'Brien points to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's refusal to address the noncarcinogenic effects of dioxin -- one of the most toxic chemicals known -- while assessing health risks of the emissions from the chemical weapons incinerator at the Umatilla Army Depot. She also cites the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) insistence on measuring the risk of potentially harmful chemicals one at a time "when all the science in the world," she says, suggests that commonly used mixtures of chemicals often have synergistic effects that increase their harmfulness to both humans and the environment.In March of this year, the EPA shunted aside the findings of more than 300 studies showing that some chemicals have the effect of disrupting the reproductive and other endocrine systems in fish, animals and humans. The EPA issued a report saying that "no action" is needed to protect the public health or the environment from the dangers of those chemicals.In the Eye of the Beholder Science is often believed to be based on rock-hard empirical conclusions that are numerical, objective and, therefore, not open to interpretation. But the truth is, says University of Washington Professor David Karr, science is inextricably "cast in the language of values and of sustaining existing values." Results a party wants or expects to find in a scientific study, he says, can determine how the results are interpreted, or whether studies are shelved or granted a stamp of "validity."In the case of the spotted owl, for instance, the original plan outlining the harm logging of old growth forests was doing to spotted owl habitat was ignored by the Forest Service, says former Forest Service researcher Barry Noon, who was on the research team who prepared the report. At first, the Forest Service ignored the study. It was given teeth, he says, only because it made it into the courts, where a judge found the study's science to be rock-solid, and determined that the Forest Service was derelict in following its own laws regarding logging, sustainable harvests and preserving water quality and quantity."I can tell you," Noon says today, "that in the absence of that litigation -- even with the same conclusions -- the likelihood of that study being implemented would have been close to zero." And, indeed, the fracas over the ICBEMP's plan is very much due to disagreement as to how the science was "interpreted" in making the final recommendations. Environmentalists, sensitized to the extreme degradation of the region's eco-systems, saw the science as clearly indicating significant change in federal land management policies.The Forest Service read the science as saying forests were unhealthy and at- risk for wildfire, and chose remedies that would fit existing agency objectivies -- logging and continued grazing. Andy Brunelle, public affairs leader for the ICBEMP project and a Forest Service employee, disagrees vehemently that the final recommendations ignored scientific evidence. Such claims, he says, "are false allegations and a distortion of what the science did find."For instance, in terms of road-building, he says, what the science asserts is that past road building practices had negative effects on fish and wildlife. "You can't use past practices to make prohibitions for the future," he says. "You make adjustments."He defended the absence of protections for roadless areas by saying that because of years of fire suppression, many of those areas now present a high risk for wildfire. He maintains that to eliminate the risk, the areas need to be subject to thinning and prescribed burning -- both of which require extensive road building -- in order to restore the systems to health. And as for recommending little or no changes in the amount of grazing to be permitted on those lands, Brunelle says the plan opted instead to focus on management changes. Those changes would be left up to individual ranchers, he says, and may include such actions as "hiring an additional cowboy" to move cattle to different grazing sites or increasing the supply of water for grazing stock.Bishop and others challenge Brunelle on every point. "There is no scientific evidence -- none," Bishop says, that suggests commercial thinning will restore forests to health. At the same time, she says the science is clear "that every road built means disturbed soils, barriers to wildlife movement, disrupted ground water flow, not to mention providing more human access into sensitive wildlife areas."Bishop also challenges Brunelle's defense of maintaining current grazing levels. "Their own document admits that they do not know how to combine grassland restoration and grazing," she says. The strategy to restore grazing by maintaining the same numbers of cattle, she says, is completely untested. "Yet they want to implement it across millions of acres."If the Science Doesn't Fit, Shelve ItUW Professor Karr, who teaches in the areas of zoology, civil engineering, environmental health and public affairs, has had experience with having his own science "be shelved." Karr was one of seven scientists who, in the early '90s, were part of a team representing five professional scientific organizations commissioned to evaluate the health and supply of old growth forests on the east side of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington. The study was carried out by the request of a bipartisan group of congressmen and paid for by nonprofit funding sources. The scientists studied 10 national forests, using data provided by the Forest Service and the National Audubon Society.The results of the study, published in 1994, were "alarming" Karr said. The study found that, on average, 20 percent of the area's original forests remained and that, with some species, such as the Ponderosa pine, only 3-5 percent were left. The scientists recommended no further logging of old growth forests; increased protection of streams and fish habitat; protection of roadless areas; limiting timber harvests on steep slopes and fragile soils; and instituting a program to monitor forest health.But although based on the Forest Service's own data, Karr says the independent report's findings were ignored by ICBEMP. The authors were invited to give a presentation to the ICBEMP committee, he says, "but they told us the rule was we could not discuss our results, but only the process we went through" in making the report.And why does he think the report was pushed aside? "I believe ICBEMP had a vision of what ought to happen and didn't want facts to stand in the way of that," he says. The study he participated in was originally requested, he says, in part because the Forest Service feared the health of eastside forests was being endangered by insect infestation. The agency was prepared to deal with the problem by widespread logging of affected trees. But when the study concluded that current and past logging practices -- not insects -- were a much greater threat to old growth forests, he says, the Forest Service lost interest in the science.That reaction doesn't surprise Corvallis-based civil engineer Dave Bella, who has for years studied the impact of techology and organizational systems. The pattern he has seen emerge, he says, is that all kinds of "organizations," whether federal agencies, the military or mega-corporations, tend to "dampen" disruptive information "so it doesn't make it through the system." The kind of input that does make it through, he says, "is the kind that secures budgets, that justifies the organization's existence and doesn't expose past mistakes."Money, Politics and PowerCertainly Andy Stahl would agree with that "pattern." The true purpose of the ICBEMP plan is not to provide guidance as to how to best reverse decades of environmental degradation, Stahl says, but to justify a big budget and "to strong-arm the American people into giving the Forest Service more tax dollars." According to Brunelle, the ICBEMP recommendations would cost $125 to $130 million a year to implement, about an 18 to 20 percent increase in the current annual agency budget of $650 million."The Forest Service created a boogeyman -- fire," Stahl says. The scenerio the agency predicts is that "'huge, catastrophic fires will burn your cities down if you don't give us money.' It's easier for the Forest Service to justify logging to the public if they say they are doing it to prevent fire."The plan avoids strategies, says Stahl, that would call for no action -- such as leaving roadless areas alone and giving unhealthy forests time to heal by themselves. ICBEMP didn't consider these options, he says, because no money can be made from them.Bishop says another factor contributing to ICBEMP's disregard for science is prevalent attitudes throughout the Forest Service. Although many district rangers and other Forest Service employees "want to do the right thing," she says, there remains a considerable number who "are still enamored with and married to a timber and grazing industry they feel they have to support."Chris Frissell, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Montana's Flathead Research Station, agrees that "internal" agency attitudes can have considerable impact. Ongoing tension already exists between Forest Service land managers and members of the scientific community, who he says are perceived as "outsiders." That scientists were instrumental in shaping the Northwest Forest Plan, he says, was an insult to many managers who feel the plan encroached upon their decision-making authority. "Many are resolved that they cannot allow that to happen again," he says, and hence the absence of standards or mandates in the plan that land managers would be required to implement.Yet another factor that allows science to be swept aside is politics, says Bishop. The designers of ICBEMP are aware, she says, that its budgeting fate rests in the hands of a Congress that is likely to be Republican-dominated. Some of the plan's dependence on practices such as commercial thinning and maintainence of current grazing levels, she says, will no doubt make the plan more palatable to legislators "interested in supporting resource extraction industries."Barry Noon agrees. "The Forest Service is ultimately controlled by Congress," he says. "Certain legislators have -- and have had for decades -- a stranglehold on uses of public lands. Laws that made sense 100 years ago -- but are grossly destructive -- are still dictating policy in the Western U.S."A Public TrustUltimately, concede many environmentalists, the fate of Western public lands lies in the hands not of science, but of the public citizenry. "I think the public believes that public lands really should be managed on a scientifically sound basis," says David Bayles, conservation director of the Eugene-based Pacific Rivers Council. "And the public needs to understand that good, sound scientific principles are not being followed on public lands."The harm that has been caused from over 100 years of heedless extraction of natural resources is extensive, says Bayles. And so the task to heal that damage needs to be correspondingly extensive. "If we're going to be good environmental stewards, pass on our biological ecological heritage to future generations, we have to make big changes," he says. "They will not be impossible to make. But they have to be large, not small."The comment period for the ICBEMP recommendations has been extended to February of 1998. Bishop, of the Columbia River BioRegion Project, says her group will once again provide the project's executive committee with their objections to the plan's recommendations. "We will tell them -- as we have over and over -- that the plan needs to provide standards on such things as soil compaction and protection for riparian areas, and that we do not see thinning as a panacea for healthy forests."What she is asking the Oregon public to do is write the ICBEMP committee and express concerns about having the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management adopt plans for public lands that do not follow the guidance of respected science. She also suggests people recommend the ICBEMP committee look more closely at Gov. Kitzhaber's own 11-point timber plan, which calls for protection of old growth forests, riparian and roadless areas and that, in essence, "shows stronger guidance than the entire, 1,400 page ICBEMP document.""We've come to a place in the road where good science shows that really profound changes have to take place," says Bayles. "We have hit the crisis point. The spotted owl, the salmon, the bullhead trout -- all the science is telling us we're there. And the power to change this lies with the public. These are public policy questions."Sidebar:Science is at the center of a recent action taken by Douglas County commissioners, who last week announced they were taking preliminary steps to sue the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) for listing the searun cutthroat trout as endangered. According to news reports, the commissioners are challenging the NMFS listing, saying the agency did not use "the best available science" to determine the health of cutthroat populations. But Glen Spain, director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen, says the listing of the cutthroat was scientifically-defensible and long overdue. "The preponderance of data indicate this species is right on the brink of extinction," he says. The Eugene-based fishermen's association was one of the plaintiffs in the case that petitioned to have the cutthroat listed as endangered.Spain says that sports fishermen actually applaud the listing, because it will restrict logging and grazing in areas designated as critical fish habitat. Spain says sports fishermen hope the reduction in environmental disturbances will restore flagging fish populations. What the commissions' action really is, says Spain, "is a last gasp attempt to grandstand for their own political purposes."They are not coming to the aid of the fish or fishermen, he says, "but to the aid of timber barons, who have promoted the destruction of streams throughout the region." Whereas the listing will have only a nominal effect on sports fishermen, it may likely result in "significant restrictions on timber harvesting and grazing," he says."That's the real issue -- that logging companies may have to curtail existing practices that destroy fish." Spain says that there is no chance the NMFS will change the listing. If the commissioners do file suit against the agency, Spain says he has instructed his lawyers to intervene to oppose the suit. Lawyers for the Douglas County Commissioners did not return phone calls to EW requesting comment.

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