Whatever Happened to Science?

Copyright 1999, by Mark Edward Vande Pol All rights reserved.



This article was written in 1999 about the tragic conversion of the Soquel Demonstration State Forest (SDSF) from a scientific study area to a limited-entry park for the pleasure of suburban residents. It thus lacks the ability to produce sufficient income to deal with significant historical problems, nor does the State develop reliable factual basis for its regulatory policy. That is what you get with political control of the environment.

In any industry, technological improvements are directed toward current business objectives. When the forests that humans logged were substantially primeval, the business objective was to remove the easily useable wood as inexpensively as possible. As the scarcity of virgin timber and the cost of legal battles drove the price of those lands higher, reforestation became a priority. The timber industry objective has changed from one of removing as much board footage as possible to one of assuring that the forest would produce as much as possible.

Environmentalists have long argued that forest products should be removed from the land at a rate no greater than the forest can produce; what they dubbed a "sustainable rate of production" which is a logical idea. It was adopted into law in the Forest Practice Rules. Nature quickly complicated the debate with nonlinear growth rates. The bigger the tree, the slower it grows. One can have sustainable production and meet the demand, but only with a younger forest and thus smaller trees.

People like big trees but they arenít good for production. Industry cut them down before they slowed their production. Although wood was being produced at a sustainable rate, the forest wasnít getting any prettier. Sustainable growth thus was not enough for the activists. The business objective of the environmentalists had to change. Now they protest the greed of maximum steady state productivity, the very plan they had exhorted the industry to adopt.

"Sustainable" is now a catchphrase applied to everything from forestry to agriculture and development. It has become an entirely subjective term whose definition depends upon the objective. The definition of the term now differs substantially from its original meaning. In general it is utilized to imply that what is going on is not sustainable and that whatever plan advocated by activists is the optimal means for attaining it. The local forest products industry is cutting far less board footage than is growing. That point is no longer even technically arguable but the term remains politically useful. One of the problems with the idea is that the purpose for coining the term, "sustainable", although presented to the public as a far-sighted approach to forest management, has never had long term forest productivity of lumber as a goal. Its real goal was to reduce the rate of cutting in general to its purported target. Now that the target has been met it is not enough.

Sustainable production has been redefined to imply, for example, total biodiversity. Then it was found that managed forests had greater variation in flora and fauna than second growth forests in preservation. The promulgators of the definition have responded with situational variants that are increasingly esoteric and subjective. The reasonable sounding concept of "sustainable" has been extended by the environmental community to imply preserving a forest in whatever form they would prefer to see it. But what constitutes "forest health"? Productivity of board feet? Biodiversity? An old growth stand? The only thing that became clear in the ensuing debate was that nobody really agreed upon what "sustainable forestry" even was.

While industry had already directed its considerable research efforts toward the limits of lumber productivity, the environmental movement continued to argue that the timber industry was now inflicting a more gradual, but just as inexorable decline in environmental health. Although perhaps that might be true (nobody knows) the argument is somewhat esoteric in the face of what is happening elsewhere in the world. The domestic topics changed from tree cutting to soil erosion, biodiversity, endangered species, pesticide runoff, hydrology, salmon runs, logging road engineering, ground water recharge rates, filtration of sediment, species of the forest canopy, even the effects of noise. In most cases it has been found that best practice management has had a beneficial effect in disturbed habitats on many of these considerations though it is always possible to maintain the upper hand by finding fault. All parties to the debate agreed the total picture of forest health as impacted by the methods of forest management was more complex and needed more study.

The scientific forest concept was agreed upon by the timber, government, and environmental communities and enacted into law as a way to settle these disputes. The state acquired sample properties that were set aside for the purpose of research into the science of forest management under the direction of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF). All of them had been logged. The exercise of scientific practice in these forests has become a political battleground. This discussion will center on the Soquel Demonstration State Forest (SDSF) in Santa Cruz County.

The Santa Cruz Mountains form the western boundary of an urban area, Silicon Valley and the San Francisco peninsula. Numerous, recent residents of this area are technical and managerial professionals. They are not forest professionals and largely originate from outside the region. They are not familiar with local ecosystems. They are by default therefore predisposed to believe the pronouncements of environmental activists as emanating from unbiased and knowledgeable advocates of forest health.

They chose to live in these mountains to be near the trees. With the assumption that a state forest will never be developed, its margins are seen as a choice location for that purpose. To live adjacent to a remote state forest is to have a public park for personal use. That is, until somebody cuts a tree.

The state took over a local second growth redwood forest that was about 65 years old. Unbeknownst to some of the local residents, that means that it desperately needed thinning. There are environmental problems on the property typical of a forest that had been clear-cut early in the century. There are logging roads that were washed out and cause drainage problems and soil erosion. There are mixed successions of brush, to oak, to fir that have dead undergrowth and should be thinned and perhaps burned. There are infestations of exotic plants that need control. There are poor access roads that wash out regularly thus limiting access to the heavy equipment needed to correct some of the drainage problems with minimized impact. There isnít even an all-weather entry into the forest.

To fix this all takes money, lots of money. Part of the mandate of the State Demonstration Forest program was that to pay for the improvements, the forest managers had to cut and sell logs. It was not to come from taxes. CDF announced plans to do precisely that.

A local citizenís group immediately formed and called itself Citizens for Responsible Forest Management (CRFM) (i.e. anything they disagree with must be irresponsible?). The group was formed, led, and largely funded by a well to do lawyer whose property lay directly adjacent to the park, erÖ demonstration forest. That much of the rest of the CRFM was constituted of much the same group of people who had resisted every other logging plan in the area should have surprised no one.

They accused the state of trying to make a profit on the logging as a way to support the general fund; never mind that it would require retained earnings to fund some of the future projects to make improvements. CRFM threatened to sue, they blared misinformation in the local press, they sat in on the board of the advisory committee meetings, and worst, they pulled their trump cards, money, media, and votes.

They leaned on the County Supervisors and Fred Keeley, then a county supervisor, now a State Assemblyman sitting as Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. He now controls the purse strings for the SDSF. CRFM had to make sure that the amount of logging in the forest would never get "out of control".

The result was a reinterpretation of the founding charter. The turn of phrase that was the point of contention was that the amount of logging to be allowed was only sufficient to, "meet the goals of the forest." SDSF management took that to mean that it would be an amount necessary to conduct the projects they had in mind: facilities improvements, scientific experiments, riparian restoration, harvest methodology development, and cutting versus growth rate experiments. That was no longer to be the meaning of the phrase. The new interpretation is that the amount of cutting shall be no more than to meet the operating budget. The distinction is important. If the current budget does not include funding for any projects, the amount authorized will not increase to do them even if they are ultimately profitable.

Unless the forest has the staff and resources to do the preliminary work to justify the projects, it canít begin the work without a state approval for a budget increase. They have been hog-tied by red tape in a state very similar to that of the state parks. Where they could have done a harvest and saved the cash; then hired the people, or let the contracts to do projects on and for the land, now they have to wait for the budget cycle and approval fromÖ Fred Keeley. When he gets a request for funding for a project that might raise the budget base, whom do you think he calls?

CRFM, through Fred Keeley had ended up limiting SDSF to a plan that had effectively confined the amount of revenue to barely cover existing operations. The administrators have been reduced to projects focusing on educating local school children on forestry, demonstration projects utilizing horse logging (theyíre quieter than helicopters and donít make Cat tracks), and other feel-good diversions from the original purpose. The SDSF staff has been reduced from managing a productive forest with a scientific purpose to, in part schmoozing the local residents into thinking that perhaps logging isnít so bad.

The original idea of SDSF was to be a source of the collection and public distribution of scientifically tested facts. It was the principal corrective program with a chance of successfully assisting surrounding landowners toward having the supporting documentation to prove that they should be encouraged to manage their property to restore local forest habitat to health.

Think of what could have happened. They could have had a community resource toward supplying the technical expertise to assist landowners outside the boundary with everything from biotic survey work to consulting services. The forest could have assisted riparian restoration, burning experiments, exotic species control process developments, erosion control methods optimization, species population surveys, and the most important, the development of documented best practice methodologies to educate residents about the best ways to care for the land. It could even serve as a repository and peer review site for local, private scientific work. It wonít happen now without specific justification and a blessing from the California State Legislature, and the Governor, when they have the time.

This gets worse if the price of timber rises. Given fixed operating costs, if the trees are more profitable, the number cut must be adjusted downward whether it is ecologically the right thing to do or not. CDF is in the awful position of being motivated to minimize the profitability of the operation to be allowed to manage the forest. NOW we know why they used horses, it is a fixed budget. What happened to the fiduciary responsibilities already mandated by law?

The state forests belong to all of the people of California, not just local residents. The purpose of SDSF was NOT another park. Designed harvesting and habitat restoration experiments with multivariate outputs must be conducted with scientific fact determination as the goal, without regard to economic outcome, either at a profit or a loss. The whole point of having this project was to settle the disputes by establishing scientific facts such as the following:

  1. What is the best way to maintain and restore healthy forests and forest biodiversity?
  2. What are the long-term limits of agricultural productivity, i.e. true sustainability under a variety of conditions? (e.g. light, soil type, location on a slope, and ground water)
  3. How are infrastructural elements (roads, drainage, etc.) best employed toward those ends? How are roads best retired?
  4. What is the best way to manage secondary environmental impact of logging operations? Noise disturbance, nesting, temporary fire hazards, and transport of exotic species.
  5. How is what we learn best disseminated?

Who knows? The representatives of CRFM may learn that to encourage these things might be a good idea, but donít bet on it. Meanwhile, though these projects may yet happen, it will just take considerably longer to get them approved by the legislature and waste resources to get it done. Resources supported byÖ cutting trees.

The most tragic thing about this whole process is that these goals were never seriously considered by CRFM. Their goal has selfishly risked over a thousand acres of forest to the significantly higher probability of at least serious damage by fire and overrun by exotic species. That risk should be documented and the risk it portends to the surrounding homes priced on those who resist the work being done.

CRFM will not even consider this outcome, because they donít believe that it can happen; because they donít believe that anything bad could happen as a result of what they want. If it burns to a crisp, it will either be a "natural event of forest cleansing" or CDFís fault because they didnít stop it.

The fantasy they use to absolve themselves of the preexisting condition is that the slash (the branches and tops left after logging that have been chopped into smaller pieces on the ground) is more combustible immediately after a logging job. It is dry tinder. This means that a fire is easier to start. What they seem to forget is that although the fuel easier to ignite, it is less capable of generating a firestorm because of the total standing volume has been removed and the rest of it is on the ground instead of being suspended in mid air. They call that an "increased fire hazard due to logging".

Only a lawyer could come up with a theory of fire hazard management like that. While it is true that the slash is more combustible for a period of approximately two years, the total fuel load is greatly reduced and it is no longer supported in the air to burn at higher speeds and temperatures at periods of critical fire danger. It is functionally, a myth.

An internally inconsistent tautology is a devilish thing to disabuse and a tricky thing to placate. When such foundational myths are coddled by a politician you get worse than the usual sausage because the systems of motivations are convoluted by ideology, the payoffs are non-pecuniary, while the familiar campaign contributors matter more than ever. In addition the system is subject to the whims of Federal and state agencies and grantors.

How are politicians able to figure out what to do under such twisted systems of logic? How do they reconcile the usual, more understandable interest groups and still please the paying customers like developers, lawyers, and public employee unions? How do we resolve all that and still manage ecosystems appropriate to their individual needs?

We donít.