Biscuit Fire publication controversy

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The Biscuit Fire publication controversy refers to an academic and political controversy in the United States which occurred in January 2006. The U.S Forest Service and a group of professors (including six at the Oregon State University College of Forestry) wrote a letter to the prestigious scientific journal Science, requesting that publication of a short forestry paper written by an OSU Forestry graduate student (and others) be delayed until the authors could respond to it, arguing the article was "short on qualifiers and context".[1] Alternatively, the group requested that Science publish a sidebar illustrating their concerns alongside the paper. Science refused, and the paper (which had already undergone peer review and had been approved for publication) appeared in the January 20, 2006 edition of the journal. The paper had previously been published in the online edition of Science, prior to the letter being written.[2]

Science article[edit]

The paper, written by graduate student Dan Donato and several colleagues, concerned the effects of logging in the aftermath of the 2002 Biscuit Fire, a massive wildfire which burned nearly a half million acres (2,000 km²) in southwestern Oregon. Some forestry scientists, as well as the Bush administration, have proposed that salvage logging--removal of dead trees after a fire (many of which may still be usable as timber)--is necessary for fire safety and forest regeneration.[3] Donato et al.’s research provides some evidence refuting this view. They compared sections of the burn which were burned severely then were salvage logged to sections which had only been burned. They found the unlogged portions had significantly more conifer seedlings than were found in the logged portions. The paper suggested that soil disturbance and materials left over from the logging process may have disturbed the growth of seedlings. In addition, the paper reports on elevated surface fuels in the logged sites, which, they concluded, elevated the risk of future fire.

Political involvement[edit]

The incident, and its aftermath, have had significant repercussions in the forestry community, and has highlighted the political obstacles surrounding much of forestry science and research. Originally, when the letter came to light, the College of Forestry was subjected to heavy criticism from both within and outside for what many perceived as an unwarranted attack on academic freedom.[4] Accusations of politically motivated bias have flown in both directions, and critics of the incident have noted that the College receives 10% of its funding from a tax on logging, and that many professors have ties with the Forest Service and the logging industry. Defenders of the college have noted that the vast majority of research in the college is funded by competitive grants and that collaboration with government agencies and relevant industries is common across the sciences.[5] Hal Salwasser, the dean of the College of Forestry, eventually survived a vote of confidence and apologized for his part in the controversy, and reaffirmed OSU's support for academic freedom.

The letter's primary author, OSU forestry engineering professor John Sessions, has claimed that the paper's publication constitutes a failure of the peer review process, and that he would appeal the matter to the board of Science.[6] Science editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy has stated, in a letter to The Oregonian, that it "would be foolish to argue that no consideration of the political extensions of this finding could have entered the decision" regarding publication; however, he believes that the paper would have "made it (to publication) on its own".

Ongoing research and discussion[edit]

The August 4, 2006 issue of Science contained comments by the OSU professors,[7] congressman Brian Baird,[8] and a response from Donato and his colleagues.[9] Evergreen Magazine subsequently committed an entire issue to a discussion of the controversy.[10]

In the following year, two new papers substantiated, in part, Donato's findings. Natural conifer regeneration following severe fires in the Siskiyou Klamath region was common and stocking standards were always exceeded without planting, although natural regenerated conifers grew slower than planted conifers.[11] Thompson and others found that Biscuit Fire severity was higher in areas that had been burned and salvaged fifteen years earlier (1987) than it was in comparable areas that were burned in 1987 but left unmanaged. [12]


  1. ^ Milstein, Michael (2006-01-20). "Logging study sets off own firestorm". The Oregonian. Archived from the original on 2006-12-11. Retrieved 2007-12-27. 
  2. ^ D.C. Donato et al., "Post-wildfire logging hinders regeneration and increases fire risk," Science, January 20, 2006 (subscription required)
  3. ^ Sessions, J., P. Bettinger, R. Buckman, M. Newton, and J. Hamann. 2004. Hastening the return of complex forests following fire: The consequences of delay. Journal of Forestry 102(3):38-45.
  4. ^ Wildfire logging debate heats up
  5. ^ MR Zine: Corporate Forestry and Academic Freedom
  6. ^ The Herald: Forestry professor continues to fight anti-logging research
  7. ^ M. Newton, S. Fitzgerald, R. R. Rose, P. W. Adams, S. D. Tesch, J. Sessions,* T. Atzet, R. F. Powers, C. Skinner, "Comment on 'Post-Wildfire Logging Hinders Regeneration and Increases Fire Risk'", Science, Aug 4 2006
  8. ^ B. N. Baird, "Comment on 'Post-Wildfire Logging Hinders Regeneration and Increases Fire Risk'", Science, Aug 4 2006
  9. ^ D. C. Donato, J. B. Fontaine, J. L. Campbell, W. D. Robinson, J. B. Kauffman, B. E. Law "Response to Comments on 'Post-Wildfire Logging Hinders Regeneration and Increases Fire Risk'", Science, Aug 4 2006
  10. ^ Skinner, D. 2006 "The Donato-Law Fiasco: Mixing Politics & Science: Alchemy at OSU", Evergreen, Winter, 2006-2007
  11. ^ Shatford, J. P. A., D. E. Hibbs, and K. J. Puettmann. 2007. Conifer regeneration after forest fire in the Klamath-Siskiyous: How much, how soon? Journal of Forestry 105:139-146.
  12. ^ Thompson, J. R., T. A. Spies, and L. M. Ganio. 2007. Reburn severity in managed and unmanaged vegetation in a large wildfire. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 104:10743-10748.