The February 2012 edition of Fire Science Digest from the Joint Fire Science Program included this very interesting article titled, “Bark Beetles and Fire: Two Forces of Nature Transforming Western Forests.” Here’s the intro to the article [emphasis added]:
Bark beetles are chewing a wide swath through forests across North America. Over the past few years, infestations have become epidemic in lodgepole and spruce-fir forests of the Intermountain West. The resulting extensive acreages of dead trees are alarming the public and raising concern about risk of severe fire. Researchers supported by the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) are examining the complicated relationship between bark beetles and wildfire, the two most influential natural disturbance agents in these forests. Are the beetles setting the stage for larger, more severe wildfires? And are fires bringing on beetle epidemics? Contrary to popular opinion, the answer to both questions seems to be “no.”
Since Sharon highlighted Michael Donnelly’s Pre-Public Interest Environmental Law Conference article at Couterpunch here, I figured we might as well also highlight Donnelly’s Post-Public Interest Environmental Law Conference article at Couterpunch. So here it is, “Lessons Learned at the 30th Environmental Law Conference: Of Advocates and Activists.”
As you’ll see, Donnelly’s provides a link to this blog in his article (as he did in his pre-piece too), which I believe is one of the reasons why this blog has seen a steady up-tick in traffic over recent days. Counterpunch has a huge readership and personally, I think it’s a good thing that some of those readers – who may not be that versed in national forest policy issues – are having a look at what we’re discussing over here. These national forest lands do belong equally to all Americans after all and NEPA ensures that any American who wants to participate in the management of these lands has a meaningful opportunity to do so.
Department to allow employees more freedom to speak publicly
From E&E news..
Published: Thursday, March 8, 2012
The Interior Department is close to releasing a new communications policy that would give employees more freedom to speak to reporters and publish scholarly articles.
Under the new rules, employees would be able to publicly speak about departmental operations and activities as long as they follow rules that include not disclosing information protected by the Freedom of Information Act, according to a draft of the policy obtained by Greenwire. The new policy encourages scientists to publish research based on departmental projects and directs public affairs officials to be open with the news media.
The move is Interior’s latest step in complying with the White House’s order to develop policies that promote transparency and keep politics out of government research.
Interior earned praise for its overall scientific integrity policy, which it released in September 2010 (E&ENews PM, Sept. 29, 2010). But it has not updated its communications policy since 1999, and the new one has been a year in the making.
Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher said the department was in the “final stages” of revising the policy, which will apply to all the department’s agencies and bureaus.
“The new communications policy will affirm the importance of promoting the free flow of scientific, scholarly and technical information, and will emphasize openness, transparency, and accuracy,” he said in an email. “The new policy also will reflect key changes in the media landscape — including the emergence of social media tools and expanded access to online information. The policy will be available to the public once it is finalized.”
But the policy does include some restrictions for employees who publicly voice their opinions on agency work. For example, employees can speak to the news media but must notify the Office of Communications of any interviews that “may generate significant news coverage, public interest or inquiry.”
Employees also must seek guidance from a supervisor if an interview will involve information that Interior hasn’t already published or publicly released. They cannot disclose anything protected by FOIA, a notoriously nuanced law that protects some federal documents from public disclosure.
When shown the draft, advocacy groups applauded the overall policy but said it wasn’t clear enough to ensure a free exchange of ideas.
The FOIA provision, for example, reminds employees that they cannot disclose “pre-decisional and deliberative information” — a FOIA exemption that OMB Watch’s Gavin Baker said is often overused by agencies. Though employees should be following FOIA when speaking publicly, he said, Interior could give better guidance on how that might be applied in employees’ public comments.
“I think it has the risk of shutting down some valuable conversations,” said Baker, who follows scientific integrity efforts as a federal information policy analyst at OMB Watch. “I think there’s a concern that people will interpret this far too broadly, and it will really discourage information from getting out that ought to get out.”
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, also contended that such unclear restrictions would dilute a policy that otherwise encourages more openness than at many agencies.
“Under these rules, scientists can speak out so long as they don’t say anything new or interesting,” Ruch said. “A scientist would have to consult a lawyer to know whether he or she could submit a paper for peer review, speak at a conference or answer questions from a reporter under these provisos.”
But Ruch and Gavin both commended the inclusion of a provision that prohibits public affairs officials from altering scientific information and gives internal experts a chance to review news releases for accuracy.
Overall, Interior’s draft policy is more lenient than those of many other agencies, such as U.S. EPA, which lacks specific communications rules. It would expand the opportunity for scientists to “take off their government hat” and give their opinions on their research, said Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“This is a terrific step forward for protecting the public good,” Grifo said. “We want and need to hear from federal scientists, and this policy makes that easier than it has been in the past.”
Note from Sharon: This seems very broad, but perhaps I am reading too much into it. Am I a federal scientist because of my job (not) or my background (yes). What if others in the agency think that the federal scientist has overstated the applicability of the researcher’s results? Can those employees also talk to “the press”?
I think posting whatever federal scientists want to say on a public blog where their interpretations can be openly debated would be far better for transparency and science education. We need to move some of these discussions “beyond traditional media,” in my opinion.
Would that give me free rein to give my opinion on my observations if they are not “research”? I like to share my opinion, as y’all know, so maybe I should start applying for jobs in Interior.
With an Interior West flavor..
New national forest rule to focus on restoration of damaged ecosystems
Posted: 03/09/2012 01:00:00 AM MST
By Bruce Finley
The Denver Post
Obama administration officials are emphasizing restoration of degraded ecosystems as they roll out a final new rule for managing the nation’s 193 million acres of forests and grasslands.
Thirty years in the making, the rule to be officially issued this month will direct regional foresters to use science and more monitoring to improve conditions, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in an interview Thursday.
“If we don’t restore our forests and grasslands, we’re going to continue to see more loss of the benefits,” Tidwell said. “More loss of the clean water that is produced on healthy forests. More loss of wildlife habitat. More soil erosion.”
The congressionally required rule sets a framework for regional plans that govern all activities on national forests — from tree-cutting to oil-and-gas drilling to hiking on trails.
It replaces a 1982 rule that was meant to protect forests but failed to prevent widespread damage from intensifying wildfires, insect epidemics, climate change and human population growth.
That Reagan-era rule “focused on restricting activities,” Tidwell said.
Now, regional foresters’ focus on wildlife “management indicator species” as a basis for assessing forest health is to be replaced with a focus on broad habitat needs for a diversity of species.
“If there is scientific evidence that a species is at risk of starting to lose population, to the point where we maybe would have to list it as ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered,’ then we would take additional steps” to ensure survival, he said. “It all has to be based on scientific evidence.”
Conservationists commenting on drafts of the rule have said it leaves too much discretion to individual forest managers. The final version, Tidwell said, “strikes a very good balance between providing national consistency … and allowing that local discretion.”
National Wildlife Federation attorney Michael Saul said success likely will depend on Congress making sure forest studies and monitoring can be done.
“If the Forest Service has sufficient staff and resources to implement the final rule as intended, then I think, on balance, it will result in more science-based and better management of watersheds and wildlife habitat,” Saul said.
The forest management planning process itself consumes Forest Service staff. Legal challenges and politics repeatedly have frustrated prior efforts to revise the 1982 plan. Federal courts since 2000 have rejected multiple attempted revisions, including a Bush administration rule in 2009.
Meanwhile, the regional plans governing 68 of 127 forests and grasslands have not been updated as required.
The final rule is expected to spur updating of those plans through a speedier process of assessment, revision and monitoring.
Colorado contains 13.8 million acres of national forest, much of it fragmented by roads. Traditional uses such as timber-harvesting have declined. New uses such as motorized off-road vehicle recreation are on the rise. Forest plans still must balance multiple uses.
Restrictions on activities need not increase, Tidwell said. For example, more trees, not less, may be cut to deal with the ravaging of millions of acres of western forests by bark beetles.
And even with population growth driving more recreationists into the woods seeking solace, “there are lots of things we can do to address the impacts,” he said, especially if forest users are sensitive to the environment and stay on trails. “We can do things to harden trails so that they can handle more use.”