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US Forest Service Prevents Its Own Scientist From Talking About Study

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Firefighter Cameron Andersen, of the US Forest Service, pours water on burning embers while clearing hot spots of the King fire in the El Dorado National Forest near Georgetown, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

The US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station won't let forest ecologist Malcolm North talk about the study he authored in the journal Science.

The agency even unsuccesfully requested that Science editors hold the article or remove North's name and affiliation from the peer-reviewed study.

The paper "Reform Forest Fire Management” says suppressing every fire in overgrown forests is not only expensive but dangerous and ill-advised.

Strong words perhaps, but UC Berkeley Fire Scientist Scott Stephens, who co-authored the paper, says they are not controversial. 

“I read the paper many times," says Stephens. "I just didn’t see something jump, like this would be something that would really cause great problems.”

The study considers ways to make forests less prone to wildfire, by thinning trees in overgrown forests, using controlled burns or allowing natural fires to burn under the right conditions.

US Forest Service policy actually supports those actions, but the authors point out such efforts rarely occur. In the decade ending in 2008, only 0.4 percent of ignitions were allowed to burn as managed wildfires. 

“If you look at the results to date, I have to say that there isn’t a lot of change that we’ve seen," says Stephens. "We’re in a four year drought that certainly makes things a little more volatile. But looking down the road, unless we change course on restoration, there’s no way we’re ever going to get out of this dilemma.” 

The dilemma is that 98 percent of wildfires are suppressed before reaching 300 acres. But the study shows the two percent of wildfires that escape containment burn under extreme weather conditions and account for 97percent of fire-fighting costs. 

“What we’ve done over the last 100 years with fire suppression in these frequent fire forests and landscapes is dramatically altered them and consequently their behavior," says forest ecologist Jerry Franklin with the University of Washington. He is also one of the paper’s co-authors.

"So we were going to have a ‘come to Jesus’ time one way or another, but climate change of course is almost certainly exacerbating what’s going on,” says Franklin. 

The paper suggests that national forests could be divided into zones with different fire management strategies. Forests could be mechanically thinned close to homes while remote forests could be intentionally burned. Scott Stephens says dedicated crews could be hired to conduct prescribed burns.

“You’d just have a group of people that could be trained, move around the country and then actually manage fires for ecological benefit," says Stephens. "We used to have those a few years ago, but they were eliminated because of budget cuts and emphasis on suppression.”

Authors say change is blocked by the lack of economic incentive. The federal budget to prevent national forest wildfires is often spent fighting wildfires.

Just this week, the USDA had to transfer funds from forest restoration projects to cover wildfire costs for the third time this year. Stephens says the study recommends more public involvement to push for change.

“The US Forest Service is starting to revise all its land management plans for the first time since the 1980’s," says Stephens. "This is really a point in a generation where you might have some influence in looking at the long-term, what you want to achieve in national forest management.”

At some point - perhaps because Congress is debating wildfire budgets- the Pacific Southwest Research Station claims Malcolm North’s paper went too far and forbade him from talking about it. 

“They don’t like their scientists making comments with regards to policy,” says co-author Jerry Franklin, who formerly worked with the US Forest Service.

“Obviously the implications of this article are that we need to make some significant changes in policy. And it’s not just agency policy either, it has to do with a change in societal perspectives,” says Franklin.

The Pacific Southwest Research Station says its role "is to conduct and publish research, not to evaluate land management policy."

Editors at Science refused to hold the article from publication or remove North’s name and affiliation. A disclaimer was added telling readers that the content does not necessarily reflect the views of the US Forest Service.

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