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The US Forest Service Is Trying To Bury a Crucial Journal Article

"The Pacific Southwest Research Station says its role is to conduct and publish research, not to evaluate land management policy."
Image: US Army

On Thursday, Science magazine published a crucial and overdue commentary lamenting the current state of wildfire management on US public lands. Among the authors was Malcolm North, a plant ecologist at the US Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station in California.

As it turns out, the USFS was none too pleased about the piece or North's name being attached to it. According to Valley Public Radio, the central California NPR affiliate, the agency has barred North from discussing the paper and had even attempted to prevent Science from publishing it.


"The Pacific Southwest Research Station says its role is to conduct and publish research, not to evaluate land management policy," VPR's Amy Quinton reports. "Editors at Science refused to hold the article from publication or remove North's name and affiliation. A disclaimer was added telling readers that the content does not necessarily reflect the views of the US Forest Service."

The Science commentary, which Motherboard covered in more depth here, basically argues that we're doing wildfires all wrong. 98 percent of all fires are quashed before they can grow in size and consume their host forests' overaccumulation of fuels. And so the accumulation continues year after year until a deadly, catastrophic wildfire hurricane shreds 70,000 acres in a weekend.

The piece advocates for the public to put pressure on land managers and politicians to begin allowing for more controlled burns, mechanical thinning, and for allowing some fires to grow to the point that they're able to consume significant amounts of deadfall and other fuels. This is not just a reasonable position, but a widely-accepted one as well.

UC Berkeley Fire Scientist Scott Stephens tells VPR, "I read the paper many times, and I thought the same thing, I just didn't see something jump, like this would be something that would really cause great problems."

"If you look at the results to date, I have to say that there isn't a lot of change that we've seen," he says. "We're in a four year drought that certainly makes things a little more volatile, but looking down the road, unless we change course on restoration, there's no way we're ever going to get out of this dilemma."

I've reached out to the USFS for comment, but have not yet heard back.