Few people know that I once taught college-level statistics and research methods.
I was recently able to put my scientific research background to good use in my new profession when a graduate student and other researchers at the Oregon State University published a study about post-fire logging.
The more I examined the study's methodology, the more flawed I found it to be.
To understand what I discovered with the study, consider this anecdote about car wax.
See if this makes sense. A car wax company recommends applying its product within 90 days to prevent rust. A friend of yours claims the wax is worthless and to prove it he takes two cars, a Chevy and a Mazda, waits two years after purchase, and applies the wax to both. One year later, he compares the rust on the Chevy in the beginning to the rust on the Mazda now. The Mazda has more rust a year later than the Chevy did to begin with so your friend says "See, I've proven the wax is worthless!"
Wait a minute you say, first of all the directions said apply the wax in 90 days and you waited two years. Plus, it doesn't tell you anything to compare the rust on the Chevy at the start with the rust on the Mazda later. Maybe the Mazda started out with more rust, maybe the Mazda is left out in the rain and the Chevy is kept in a garage, maybe the paint on the Chevy is just stronger than the Mazda's. A whole bunch of things could have made the difference other than the wax.
Now, suppose you learn your friend managed to get $300,000 of taxpayer money to conduct his "study" and that he published his conclusion in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Then suppose that members of Congress were so impressed by this that they proposed legislation to prevent the use of car wax.
Crazy, right? Well, it is crazy, but that's essentially what happened with a study of post-fire logging published by a graduate student and other researchers at the OSU. I'll describe that study in a minute, but first let me put it into context.
It is well known that in large forest fires or blowdowns, trees are killed but their wood is often perfectly good as long as it is harvested quickly before bugs, fungus or decay take effect. On private, state and tribal lands harvest often takes place as quickly as possible. On federal lands, however, complex and lengthy environmental reviews, plus appeals and lawsuits by activists, often delay harvests until the wood is so decayed that it is essentially worthless.
To prevent this waste of wood and to allow for more rapid reforestation, Congressman Greg Walden and I introduced legislation, HR 4200, the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act. This bipartisan bill was developed after numerous hearings and consultation with interested environmental and industry groups, scientists and practicing foresters on all sides of the issue. Our bill has been endorsed by the 15,000-member strong Society of American Foresters and numerous other groups.
Our legislation strictly protects living forests and allows no harvest in wilderness areas and national parks. The bill does not require any harvest elsewhere, but does allow for prompt decisions about whether or not harvest would be appropriate, and if so, how it should be done in an environmentally and economically sound manner.
The bill provides for public input and legal appeals and contains a host of environmental protections, including immediate decommissioning of roads and replanting with natural diverse and dispersed species. Under the bill, existing forest management plans must be followed, which means there are strong protections for riparian areas and watersheds and there are requirements for leaving legacy trees to provide habitat. Finally, the bill includes a strong scientific research component.
What does this have to do with the OSU study and how does that relate to the imaginary study of rusty cars?
Shortly after we introduced the legislation, an OSU study was published and then widely cited by activists who argued that it "proved" postfire logging was harmful. The trouble is, when you look carefully at the study, it turns out to be a lot like the car rust study. Our legislation calls for prompt harvest, but the OSU research study gathered data two years after a fire. Given that delay, it isn't surprising that some natural regeneration occurred or that logging activities might have harmed that regeneration. If anything, this actually supports our argument for a more prompt harvest.
But there is another, serious problem with the study from a scientific perspective. The study's authors state that salvage logging caused a 71 percent decrease in seedlings. They got this number by counting seedlings in one area before logging and comparing that to a completely different area after logging. Obviously, just as in the car wax study, all sorts of things other than logging could have caused the difference between the two areas, but the authors attributed the entire difference to logging.
Why does this matter? Opponents of our bill have said that the OSU study provides scientific proof that our bill is flawed and that we neglected science. In fact, the study does nothing of the sort, and if it is an example of the "science" the activists are basing their opposition on, their opposition is on shaky ground.
Rather ironically, those who had initially used the OSU study to justify their opposition to our bill are now criticizing me for pointing out the study's flaws. Apparently they believe members of Congress should just hand over the taxpayers' money without question and not think independently or critically on their own. I disagree with that approach to science and to public policy.
The fact is, our bill represents a common sense, balanced approach supported by the real world experience of thousands of forestry experts and endorsed by a number of top forestry scientists. If enacted, our bill will help restore healthy forests faster, provide valuable wood for homes and other uses, and help maintain and create jobs throughout our region. That is sound policy and it should not be distorted or derailed by unsound science.
U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, represents Pacific County, Wash., in the U.S. House of Representatives.