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The Battle of Bull Run

When science meets politics and policy, the outcome may depend more on values than on objectivity

Douglas Larson

Scientific Debates

Scientists, including those of us on the Bull Run Advisory Committee, were divided on the logging issue. Logging proponents argued that sustainable timber harvests reduced the risk of catastrophic forest fire, although records indicated that logging operations had started more than 95 percent of all fires reported in the Bull Run. Scientists opposed to logging claimed that clear-cuts and logging roads exposed the watershed to soil erosion and landslides. Dissent was evident even within the Forest Service: Although the supervisor of the Mount Hood National Forest insisted that “logging has had no effect on water quality,” Dr. Richard Fredriksen, a Forest Service watershed scientist, warned that logging could have a “dire and long-lasting effect” on water quality. “Water quality,” wrote Fredriksen in a 1975 Forest Service publication, “is optimum from forest land when the forest on that land remains undisturbed and human entry is restricted.” In July 1987, after 30 years of clear-cutting, road-building and other destructive land-use practices, the chief of the Water Bureau publicly declared that “water quality is now better, we believe, than it has ever been.”

All parties involved in the debate—BRAC, the Forest Service, the Water Bureau, the timber industry and environmental activists—generally agreed that any decisions regarding whether or not to log must be “science-based.” BRAC, for example, retained three independent, highly respected fire-management experts to evaluate the disputed policy of clear-cutting to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire. They concluded that old-growth forests were less susceptible to fire than young stands of trees, thus challenging the notion that clear-cutting protected the city’s water source over the long run. Obviously disappointed, the Forest Service and the timber industry hastily organized an opposing panel of “in-house” fire experts, whose leanings were suspiciously pro-logging. Unsurprisingly, they promptly arrived at a different conclusion.

The Battle of Bull Run raged for years, with neither side able to move forward. Scientific data supporting one side’s position was summarily rejected by the other as inconclusive or incorrect. Weary of fruitless bickering, endless debate and personal attacks, scientists gradually withdrew from the field of battle. In 1989, BRAC was dissolved and replaced by another scientific panel that was equally ineffective.

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