Science Isn’t Enough: A Forester’s Search for Truth


A presentation on 10 February 2010, by William W. Keye (of the California Licensed Foresters Association) given at the UC/USFS Pre- and Post Wildfire Conference.
You may get the PDF version (with the visuals) of his talk here:


In looking over the agenda preparing for this talk I must tell you that I have little confidence in science to put us on the right path as far as what to do about our public forests and whether they should be managed or not. This is not a criticism of science, or academia: please don’t take it that way.

But there are plenty of people with agendas that can conjure science to say what they believe. It’s not supposed to be like that, but neither is there supposed to be superstition, repression and genocide, or demagoguery.

As a young forester I had more confidence in science to settle things. But I’m an older forester now. I have witnessed great upheaval in federal forest management, including a sort of mass hysteria or lesser holocaust. It has been driven to some extent by science, yes, but from my perspective to a much larger degree by perception, values, trust and the lack thereof. So that’s what I think is most important to talk about today. I think we need to be honest about where we are at, and why. I beg you to consider these thoughts.

The Forest Service used to have a clear mission, which included getting the wood out. My profession of forestry was resistant to change in the 1960s and 1970s. After all, the greatest generation came back victorious from World War II, hit the books under the GI Bill, graduated from forestry school and knew how to manage our national forests very well, thank you very much. Even age management on public lands was taken too far, and then it was too late to go back.

Gifford Pinchot

Gifford Pinchot (Image via Wikipedia)

A new force had seized control of the land, animated by a different sort of zeal, demanding purity. Given the revolutionary dynamics it was no longer acceptable to simply reduce forest management intensity. The timber beast needed to be declawed, an industry dismantled, people in timber dependent communities would have to find something else to do, thank YOU very much.

That was the 1990s.

And here we are 20 years after the pivotal and socially cathartic listing of the northern spotted owl as threatened. We don’t do even age management anymore on public lands, or even selection. We do some thinning projects, sometimes including a little bit of commercial timber Mostly we burn down our public forests and then let them go to brush. That’s our default forest management program, although no agency or elected body has ever promulgated it. It has taken shape over the last generation, mostly due to court rulings. Each individual court ruling a star, connecting them a constellation of no, don’t touch that, no it’s just too scary.

If the forest burns down, it is the will of Gaia. If it goes to brush, it is the will of Gaia. If you need science, we can get that for you.

I favor some degree of salvage logging on public lands, on a site-specific basis under the auspices of highly trained natural resource professionals, including foresters. We can use the dead trees to build or power things with, and employ lots of people. We can plant new trees and control competing brush so that the deforested site doesn’t have to wait for decades or potentially centuries for trees to come back. We don’t need to do this on every acre, nor should we (given competing management objectives), but we can do it on many if not most. I also support pre-fire fuel treatments and green timber sales to meet any number of social, ecological and economic objectives.

With management, we can engineer ecosystem resilience and diversity, high levels of carbon sequestration, bountiful recreation and wildlife habitat. We can revitalize rural communities, build schools and hospitals, support literacy and the arts.

We can celebrate the good land with dirt under our fingernails. I believe we can do all these things with our grandchildren, and theirs, in mind.

In some circles this is blasphemy, I know. Unacceptable hubris from a discredited profession.

Sustainable forestry is a non-starter for some, because it inevitably involves some amount of timber extraction, some component of touching and turning, some degree of commercial enterprise. That doesn’t sit well with Gaia, and it feels very threatening.

We can’t trust those people anyway. They just want to cut down all the trees. Let’s stick with the precautionary principle. Let’s do nothing; that feels safer.

Part of the reason the forestry pendulum has swung so far is because America has so rapidly transitioned into an urban civilization. That wasn’t the case in 1905 when Gifford Pinchot was crafting a new US Forest Service based on progressive ideas and utilitarian land management principles that had come to be called conservation. “The Greatest Good of the greatest number in the long run.”

In 1905, about half of us still lived on the farm. Think about that – living and working on a farm.
Entering the 21st Century, we find an America transformed. Many city dwellers a generation or two ago still had relatives “back on the farm”, so they knew something about mud and manure and growing and killing things for food and fiber.

That is much less common today, and the connection is fading.

And although with the current economy we may not be feeling it right now, another major factor influencing American attitudes is that since 1950 there has been a significant rise in per capita living standards and relative freedom from day to day want. This has freed up time and treasure to pursue more altruistic interests.

With people increasingly removed from the land, affluent and isolated in large population centers, it’s easy to appreciate the collapse we have seen in basic understanding of agriculture and forestry, where wood comes from, and so forth.

So today we burn down our public forests and then a highly dedicated cadre of our fellow citizens works diligently through political action, administrative appeals and litigation to try to ensure that none of the dead timber is recovered. They’ve been very successful.

In California, we now import 80% of our lumber – despite our own vast and perennially renewable timberlands – over half of which are held under federal ownership – mostly as national forests, but also in national parks and BLM lands.

Other states and foreign countries are eager to fill our appetite for forest products, and this way we don’t have to look at the stumps. We get to be Disneyland, or at least chase that level of abstraction.

Has anybody seen the movie Avatar? Isn’t the yearning for ecotopia something that constantly nags our subconscious, that fills many a dream?

It’s a wonderful fantasy, a recurring theme in art, literature and fairy tales. With Avatar, we can pretend that somewhere, somehow, maybe on another planet, there is a place where everybody has what they need and lives in pure harmony with each other and nature. Ecotopia.

And then the Colonel comes in and has to screw everything up. Kind of like Yahweh laying waste to the Garden of Eden.

So in the collective and now very urban imagination, highly sensitized to environmental threats by non-profit activists (the Avatar people, if you will), foresters and others who advocate quaint concepts like “multiple use” or “salvage logging”, “sustainable forestry” (or maybe even “reforestation”) may just be the diabolical Colonel trying to sound reasonable.

Are you going to trust him, or us?

So purity demands are fundamental: Nature has to be something more than it actually is; like it’s portrayed in some of the wonderfully romantic 19th Century landscape paintings by great American artists like Albert Bierschtadt and Thomas Cole. Nature as it ought to be.

And it has to be separate, an allegory without humans. At least not miserable creatures like us. We are definitely not worthy!

Nature separate and divine. Nice. But forced across the western landscape, outside of special preserves, I call the vision sterile, and ultimately phony. A constellation without a soul. America has strong roots in the so-called Puritan Ethic. It’s interesting to note that John Muir was raised by a maniacally religious father. If you think about 19th Century America, the push for expansion, Manifest Destiny and the pioneer ethos – there is also a dark undercurrent of genocide against native peoples. After the aboriginals had been killed or otherwise removed from the land, the conquerors (future conservationists as well as preservationists) deluded themselves that the forested landscape they had seized was somehow entirely “natural” and not the product of centuries of Native American management practices.

The closer you are to genocide or great social turbulence, the more psychologically invested in it you are – whether you realize it or not.

So here we are.

I invite you to Google DEFORESTED CONDITIONS to learn more about what is happening to our national forests in California. I hope that the spreading deforestation will soon be seen by the public for what it is. Not as the will of Gaia: Our creation, and something that we can begin to reverse whenever we are ready to have at it.

I have confidence, invoking Avatar as well, that people want trees, lush forests and diverse ecosystems for their grandchildren.

If you want healthy forests, I say talk to a forester, preferably a member of a professional organization like CLFA [California Licensed Foresters Association] or SAF [Society of American Foresters].

But you won’t do that until you trust him or her. I think the profession will get there. After being so thoroughly put down, some of it for good reason, our recovery is ongoing, but will take time. And it will only be complete when – and if – people of good will think forestry professionals have something of real value to offer the public, the American people, our fellow citizens and their Avatars too.

That’s something science can and will greatly assist with.

Truth has a way of getting out, of seeping through cracks and leveling false prophets.

America, and our Golden State, will find the courage to engage with our land once again. That is the hope I leave you with, the confidence in a more equitable and interesting future.

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