Events & Media

Faculty-Student Paper Highlights “Disconnects” between Fire Science and Management Decisions

Sarah Anderson

Naomi Tague

Experts say that in recent years, wildfires in the western United States have been increasing in frequency, size, and intensity, posing a greater threat to property and lives. And the challenges continue long after the fire is out, as agencies work to manage post-fire recovery activities.

Science can help with those efforts, but as Bren professors Sarah Anderson and Naomi Tague, and a group of PhD students in the spring 2012 Collaborative Writing class write in “Perspectives on Disconnects between Scientific Information and Management Decisions on Post-fire Recovery in Western US,” management decisions may not always align with what the science suggests.

The paper, published in the September 2013 issue of the journal Environmental Management, dovetails with the inaugural Bren School Strategic Environmental Research Initiative (SERI) project, which is intended to foster interdisciplinary collaborations as a way of developing innovation solutions to major environmental problems of our time. The subject of the inaugural SERI, led by Anderson, Tague and fellow Bren professor Andrew Plantinga, is Wildfire and Climate Change, particularly at the urban-wildland interface in the arid western United States.

The paper examines characteristics of scientific research and public agencies, with particular focus on the U.S. Forest Service, to determine why disconnects are likely to occur between science based analysis of post-fire conditions and land management activities following fires.

 “The Forest Service is a great government agency to study because it is generally good about using science,” Anderson says. “But, it is often faced with the problem of having political actors tell it where to spend money, no matter what the science might otherwise prescribe.”

Anderson, Tague, and their eleven Bren School PhD student co-authors argue that science-management disconnects also arise because policy makers and the scientific community can have fundamentally different motivations that influence how they think about landscapes following fire.  In the paper, they argue that disconnects may occur because of limitations in both ecosystem science and in management and thus can happen even when managers are committed to using “best available science.”

One example of those difference is the scale at which analysis occurs. Science-based study of fire impacts often occurs at scales of time and space that differ from those that are relevant to wildfire management decisions.

“Because the Forest Service and other agencies must often respond to politicians and a public that have a very short-term perspective, they tend to apply that more limited perspective to management decisions,” Anderson says. “Scientists might be willing to look longer term and ask, ‘What are the consequences of a decision five or ten years out?’ But for a politician, ten years is forever from now.”

Sometimes, however, the science is limited. “The results of many post-fire actions can vary from place to place, and there a too few studies to provide a full picture of when and where a specific approach may be suitable,” Tague says. “Much of our science-based understanding of fire-dominated ecosystems occurs in relatively pristine systems, and there is less analysis of highly managed system,  although that is changing. Post-fire management decisions must be made at a particular place and time, and studies that show clearly what action is most appropriate for that site may not be available. Science-based analysis also tends to focus on single actions, such as re-seeding, and single responses, like post-fire erosion. But post-fire management must consider a suite of actions and responses and the interactions among them.”

The authors present examples of science-policy disconnects in highly visible and often-controversial post-fire recovery efforts, and provide recommendations for reducing them. They include increasing monitoring of how various post-fire actions (re-seeding and Hydro-mulching, for instance) influence such things as flood and erosion risk and long-term ecosystem health; increasing synthesis of scientific findings (in isolation from each other, fire science studies can be confusing and even contradictory); and directing social science research toward further understanding of the disconnects.

The wildfire theme will be integrated into teaching, research and other activities within the Bren School throughout the 2013-2014 academic year, with a new research topic being developed every year or so. Find out more about SERI Fire (SERIF).