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Flawed Science in Land Management Agencies

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Flawed Science in Land Management Agencies

"A science of land health needs, first of all, a base datum of normality, a picture of how healthy land maintains itself as an organism; ... Each biotic province needs its own wilderness for comparative studies of used and unused land."  -Aldo Leopold

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"As foresters, part of our vision of a forest is that it is much like a farm, and there are products growing and developing on the soil similar to a cornfield or a potato field or whatever."   -Keith Symar, Minnesota DNR Forestry 


The scientific method is a concept simple enough to teach to children in their first science course in middle school. There, among other things, they learn the importance of the "control": If you experiment on something, hold in reserve a similar something - similar in quality and scale - to serve as a standard against which results can be compared. The "base datum of normality" in Leopold's comment above is simply another way of saying "control". 

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The misconception that science is inherently objective is so embedded in society that the first in a dispute to claim the support of "science", whether or not justifiably, generally wins. But the world presents a virtual infinity of questions to which scientific methodology can be applied, and the choice of which questions to "ask", and how to ask them, is obviously subjective. To the extent that industry dominates, one need only follow the money to find what questions are asked and why. Science is therefore for sale, and this is a problem that concerns many scientists who are careful to maintain professional and ethical independence. 

In 1988, physicist Fritjof Capra wrote of a conversation with economist E. F. Schumacher, in which they differentiated between "science for understanding" and "science for manipulation". The purpose of the former, they agreed, is "enlightenment and liberation", while that of the latter is "power". Their central point was that "western civilization is based on the philosophical error that manipulative science is the truth". To the extent that corporations or industry-backed political elements define the work of scientists, corporate/industrial interests are served. One can see it throughout society, as in pharmaceuticals, agribusiness, and where extractive industries exploit public lands through politicized governmental land management agencies. 

In a keynote address at a Public Interest Science Conference at the University of Oregon, Mary O'Brien said that "As soon as you are a scientist you take a political side;... There are many scientists who undertake research and analyze data in order to produce risk assessment for forest management;... These scientists are participating in the process of assimilative capacity assessments (which ask) how much can we cut, graze, salvage, spray, develop ... and do to the earth's ecosystems without making them buckle". The address was printed in BioScience. 

A study of the history of resource exploitation printed in Science, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was merciless in its analysis: "Wealth or the prospect of wealth generates political and social power that is used to promote unlimited exploitation of resources. Scientific understanding and consensus is hampered by the lack of controls and replicates; ... The complexity of the underlying biological and physical systems precludes a reductionist approach to management;... Scientists and their judgments are subject to political pressure;... The larger and more immediate the prospects for gain, the greater the political power that is used to facilitate unlimited exploitation;... Distrust claims of sustainability."

Industrial forestry science, as practiced, serves a profiteering industry central to the breakdown of the global life support network. One can find admissions to this within the community of forestry scientists itself. A 1993 study by forestry scientists, a result of citizen concern over excessive logging in Minnesota, acknowledged there would be declines in rare species and ongoing loss of genetic diversity even at the lowest level of logging being considered but went on to claim that "conservationists (cannot be) naive about the reality of world markets and demand for forest products", and that mitigation actions will be "practical in a physical context, as well as in the political, financial, and administrative environments in Minnesota". 

Much of this brand of science depends on outright deception. In the same Minnesota study, for example, authors prescribed clear cuts of over 10,000 acres, claiming these would "mimic natural disturbances" (e.g., wind storms, wildfire, insect invasion). This is not a valid opinion. It is an outright lie. Most telling, however, is that within that state, no forestry scientists, whether state DNR, US Forest Service or university department of forestry, objected. The collective silence was de facto assent and a proper measure for understanding a discipline under considerable industrial and political control. That study has since been used as a guide for management in other states of the region, which states have their own contingents of forestry "experts" - industrial, bureaucratic and academic. 

Acceptance of widespread falsehood is routine within forestry science, as when plantations - even-aged plantings no more forest ecosystems than corn fields are tall grass prairies - are depicted as "forests". Where the forest products industry enjoys unchecked political control, even a PBS channel may air programs about "forests" as footage is shown of giant machines shearing off rows of plantation trees and stacking them like oversized toothpicks. It is industrial efficiency at its most ruthless, but, we're assured, it's scientific. And indeed it is a kind of science that dominates in land management agencies all over the country, so that within independent circles there has arisen the dark epithet of "biostitute". 

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When the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, in one of its publications, writes that "Biodiversity - perhaps more appropriately called ecosystem management - is sometimes controversial and misunderstood ...", no voices are raised from forestry scientists at the outrageous lie of equating biological diversity with a governmental management scheme. And when the head of that state's Division of Forestry quits as public servant to become Director of the Wisconsin Professional Logger's Association, hence the forest product industry's most powerful lobbyist, nobody blinks at the in-your-face revolving door between government and industry. Rather, and as if to underscore industry's power, the state not long thereafter launches a forestry program for K-12 public education called "LEAF", with "special thanks" to this lobbyist.

The vast gulf between independent forest ecology, which seeks to understand intricate relationships within ecosystems, and a forestry science concerned with maximizing tree mass per unit of time, is not made clear to a public that, from childhood on, has had its understanding of "forest" distorted in favor of the industrial viewpoint. As the importance of training the young became recognized within the dense meshwork of industry groups, legislatures, governmental agencies, media interests and academic departments forestry science, the nation has become inundated with environmental education ("EE") programs, such as Project Learning Tree, with its stated goal of "helping students clarify their thoughts (about how) environmental, technological and social systems are interconnected". Such programs are injected into classrooms by a complex network in which, one finds, all tendrils lead to industry.  

When industrial science dominates, competing independent science gets crushed. When more than 200 independent biologists from 17 Wisconsin campuses petitioned the state to make protection of "native biodiversity" rather than "recurring forest products" the principal use of state forests, they never had a chance. And again, when independent biologists at the University of Wisconsin - aware that half of Wisconsin's north woods are within a quarter mile of an improved road, that forest "interior" is disappearing in the state, and that more road networks are planned - pled for two "diversity maintenance areas" of 50,000 acres, industry, with its platoons of lobbyists, forestry scientists and political friends, killed that too. 

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Bill Willers is Emeritus Professor of Biology, University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh

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Flawed Science in Land Management Agencies