Thanks for that warm introduction. It’s a pleasure to address an audience that is so committed to ecological research. I’m not a scientist myself, but I do speak for an agency with deep roots in conservation research, going back for almost a hundred years. During that whole time, the Forest Service has always integrated science into our management. Today, we call it “science-based decision making.”
But what we mean by that has evolved, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today. How has ecological science changed our management approach? And where are we headed?
One thing we’ve learned over the last 20 or 30 years is the tremendous complexity of natural resource management. Ecologists have played a huge role in that. When I first started with the Forest Service in the 1960s, our approach was relatively simple. Our focus was often on a particular species—a particular forest tree, for example, or maybe a particular game animal.
Today, our focus is much more complex. We focus on entire ecosystems—entire watersheds. We take an ecosystem-based, landscape-scale approach to management, and ecologists have been instrumental in that. I think it’s a vast improvement, and I’m grateful for that.
That ecological complexity has also humbled us as land managers. Former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas used to say, quoting the ecologist Frank Egler, that ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, they are more complex than we can think. That realization has profound implications for our land management. It means we can never be 100 percent sure of our management prescriptions, and I’ll come back to that at the end of my remarks.
But ecological complexity also has profound implications for our science, because it defies the sense in our culture that science has all the answers. Most people think of science as an objective, value-free endeavor up there in the ivory tower, where really smart people work out the answers to society’s problems. So if we have a dispute, all we need to do is go ask the scientists and they can give us the answers we need.
So you get people quoting a scientist or a piece of science as if it proves their point and should end the discussion. Even in the Forest Service, you get the question, “What’s the science for that,” as if there were only one science, only one definitive scientific answer. And you get false expectations in public, including in Congress, about what science can and cannot do. That’s bound to lead to disappointment and disillusionment, and then maybe to the reaction, “So what good is science, anyway, if it can’t give me all the answers I want?”
When you get that loss of respect for the value of science in Congress or in the Administration, which control our purse strings, the consequences can be very severe. Let me give you an example. Many of you probably know that our federal funding for firefighting has fallen short in recent years. But if we don’t fight fires, it might put lives, communities, and ecosystems at risk, so we’ve had to temporarily take the money from other programs. Some powerful folks on Capitol Hill have told us, “Take it first from Research,” as if Research doesn’t much matter.
Getting Science Engaged
When we see that happening, I think we’ve got a serious, serious problem. It goes back to that basic misunderstanding that most folks have about the nature and role of science. I think we need to work on that in several ways.
First, I think we need to recognize that the environment we work in has changed. The days are gone when we could count on the public to simply accept our authority, whether as land managers or as scientists. Today, what we do and say will always come under critical scrutiny. People are going to question our science and our decision making, and I think that’s good. Instead of being an arbitrator, the Forest Service is gradually becoming a collaborative partner. I see a future of community-based forestry, and I for one welcome it. If we can engage our communities in our science and our decision making, then maybe they will take more ownership of the results and come to value the underlying science—and understand its limits.
Second, I think we need to recognize that technical solutions aren’t enough. I’m proud of our science at the Forest Service, and I think we do a great job of combining cutting-edge research with management leadership. But do we really look at the issues at a broad enough scale?
Take fire and fuels, for instance. We might think we have the ecological science to restore fire-dependent ecosystems and to better protect the people we serve, and technically maybe we do. But other factors play in, especially in the wildland/urban interface. Some people don’t want smoke or they do want thick trees, or maybe they just don’t like what they see as government meddling in what they view as natural processes. We’re also subject to laws and regulations that are sometimes at cross-purposes.
Or take invasive species. Technically, we probably have the means in many cases to prevent or control invasive species. We could ban all imports of exotic species, for example. We could quickly go in and cut down whole neighborhoods of city trees to eradicate an invasive insect. And we know how to get invasive fish out of mountain lakes.
But we have to work in a social and economic context. There’s a huge horticultural industry, for example, that responds to what people want to buy to decorate their homes and gardens. People love their neighborhood shade trees, and they don’t want the government coming in, as they see it, and taking their shade trees down for no visible reason. And maybe those invasive fish are trophy browns or rainbows that local people spend their vacations trying to catch.
So we’re going to need more than just technical solutions. We need to focus on the problem in its full dimensions—its social, regulatory, economic, and ecological dimensions—and how they all interplay. I think our job as scientists and land managers is to get out front and help lead a dialogue by laying out the issues in their full complexity. That means doing a better job in areas like the social sciences and communication arts. We’ve learned how critical it is to bring ecological science and social science together—and the skills it takes to communicate.
Third, I think we need to emphasize the values behind our science. Behind the appearance of scientific objectivity you can often find a set of values, and that’s good—as a public land manager, I think we need a land ethic. We need to protect the values on the land that Americans cherish.
But we also need to be clear with the public and with each other about that. Ultimately, our land management and the science behind it are about the values that Americans want, not about some abstract truth. I believe that most land management issues are not fundamentally about science; they are about public values. Both as scientists and as land managers, we ought to be engaging the public in a dialogue about those values and in a collaborative process for delivering those values through our research and decision making.
For me, it’s about showing results on the ground, where it counts, by delivering values that people want. I see that as my obligation as a public servant and as my responsibility to my profession as a forester. If we don’t show on-the-ground results, it will only reinforce the belief that science is esoteric, impractical, and a waste of taxpayer dollars. We’ve got to prove that wrong by showing tangible research results.
Tangible results are there, but the story isn’t being told well enough. For one thing, we need better measures of performance and results than the number of publications a scientist produces. We need to show how the knowledge we create through research makes a difference on the ground by delivering values that people want. We need to tell a better story about our ecological research around the country.
There’s a lot going on in relatively familiar places like the Missoula Fire Lab, the Forest Products Lab, the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab, the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, and the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest here in Oregon. But there’s also a lot more going on in our other labs and experimental forests around the nation. In the Forest Service alone, federal scientists are producing value all over the country. Federal research is helping us to deliver the values that people want, like clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. But we need to tell that story better.
Before closing, let me come back for a moment to the problem I mentioned at the outset of my remarks. Given the complexity of ecosystems and the limits to our scientific knowledge, we can never be absolutely sure of our land management prescriptions. So how can we be sure that what we do will have the intended results—delivering the values that people want?
Basically, we can’t. We can never be 100 percent sure of the outcomes of our actions, but that shouldn’t paralyze our management. Under some circumstances, we might want to take a conservative approach; but in many cases, we can manage the risks to the best of our ability, then take action, monitor the results, and adapt our future management accordingly.
We will make mistakes. But science can learn from our mistakes and help us improve our future management in a continual feedback loop. If we want to prove our worth to the American people, both as scientists and as land managers, then we need to move more strongly than ever toward an adaptive management model.
In closing, I believe that we have entered a new era at the Forest Service—an era of ecological restoration and outdoor recreation. That wouldn’t have been possible without the advances made by ecological science over the past 20 or 30 years. The challenge ahead is to continue the progress we’ve made through community-based forestry. By using adaptive management in collaboration with the public we serve, I am convinced that we can deliver the values that Americans want from their national forests and grasslands.