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Fired up. Fights about what to do after the 2002 Biscuit Fire could have been prevented if science had played a bigger role, says former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber.

Seeing the Science for the Trees

PORTLAND, OREGON--Forest managers should borrow a page from medical science and base their practices on systematic reviews of scientific evidence, former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber told scientists at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America here on 6 August. He also announced a new center to promote alternative approaches to natural resource policy that "are not inhibited by bureaucratic paralysis or driven solely by stakeholder politics."

Management of natural resources in the U.S. West has been ineffective because government acts as the mediator of disputes between industry and conservationists rather using science to guide decision-making, argued Kitzhaber, a Democrat who governed Oregon from 1995 to 2003 and currently directs the Center for Evidence-Based Policy at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. For instance, in the Northwest Forest Plan, established a decade ago to strike a balance between timber extraction and old-growth preservation in Pacific Northwest forests, political acrimony has overshadowed science.

Kitzhaber urged resource managers to adopt a model from medicine, in which panels of experts review all the scientific evidence in a particular field, winnow the good science from the bad, and draft guidelines for clinical practice. Such reviews have occasionally occurred in forest science, but they haven't held much sway, Kitzhaber argued. Had a review process been established in the wake of the 2002 Biscuit Fire in Oregon, and had the timber industry and environmentalists agreed to abide by its findings, a great deal of bickering over whether and how to conduct salvage logging might have been avoided, Kitzhaber said.

With his speech, the former governor officially launched the Kitzhaber Center, based at Lewis and Clark College Law School in Portland. The center, to be funded by individual contributions and foundation grants, aims to promote new approaches to natural resource management, including evidence-based review. Kitzhaber appealed to ecologists at the meeting to lend a hand in the review effort.

The proposal for systematic review is "a splendid idea and probably doable," says Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. However, because timber inventory data are more complete than data on endangered species and ecosystems, conservationists may be at a disadvantage in a systematic review process, says Dominick DellaSala of the World Wildlife Fund office in Ashland, Oregon, and species and ecosystems may lose.

For its part, the timber industry would participate if invited, adds Ray Wilkinson, legislative director for the Oregon Forest Industries Council. "Kitzhaber has credibility in both camps," Wilkinson says. "If he can help come up with something that people can buy into and trust, that would be great. You've got to have a system where people check their guns at the door."

Related Sites
The Kitzhaber Center
The Cochrane Collaboration, an international effort to review evidence in the medical sciences
The Ecological Society of America annual meeting
The Northwest Forest Plan
The Biscuit Fire