Follow the Money: Tracking Environmental Abuse

Clearcut, Oregon Coast Range. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Years ago, I was in a graduate wildlife biology seminar where we discussed major issues of the day. At one of the meetings, the topic was finding work in wildlife research. There were three wildlife biology professors presenting that day. After they each gave a short talk, I naively noted that it appeared that hunting could have a significant impact on hunted wildlife. Yet, it seemed no one in wildlife biology ever researched the topic of hunting effects on wildlife.

All three professors glanced at each other and began to smile. Finally, one of them answered my question. He was blunt and told me, “Look, George, you have to understand who funds wildlife research. Most of our funding comes from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks or organizations like Ducks Unlimited, The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Mule Deer Foundation, and even the Safari Club. The truth is that if we questioned whether hunting had an impact on wildlife, our funding sources would dry up. No money. No research. No research. No Graduate Student Support. No published papers. No advancement as a professor.”

He rationalized his position (with the other two professors nodding in approval) that there were plenty of relevant research topics that furthered the understanding of wildlife issues, including research that promotes wildlife protection without going there.

I asked him when one could ask such questions–and he quickly replied, “after you retire.”

I can readily agree there are many research questions one can pursue that are likely to be non-controversial and still promote better wildlife management outcomes.

I know of a friend who studied mountain lions while employed with a western state wildlife department. His research suggested that hunting caused social disruption of the big cats. He advocated against hunting the animals but was not permitted to publish his recommendations–until he retired.

Nevertheless, the response from my professors was a seminal moment for me and one reason I never sought a job in wildlife biology. I didn’t want to wait until I retired to ask questions.

Nevertheless, his honest answer provided insight I’ve used ever since that time with all kinds of issues—follow the money.

While scientists who worked to suggest that cigarette smoking wasn’t linked to cancer are an apparent conflict of interest to most people, when it comes to natural resources, there is still a naivety about the pronouncements that seemingly support resource extraction like logging, grazing, hunting, and other activities.

Part of the problem is with the media. Many journalists have no ecology or conservation history training. As a result, they don’t even know the right questions to ask.

Plus, they are not sufficiently skeptical of the authorities they quote. Just because a person has a Ph.D. in forestry or Range Science doesn’t mean they understand ecosystem function entirely. And in many cases, these authorities are so immersed in the starting assumptions of their disciplines that they have trouble even imagining there could be alternative viewpoints.

For example, many forestry professionals believe a “healthy” forest is one with limited tree mortality. The green forest ideal is an Industrial Forestry paradigm that most foresters are immersed in while in school and even once they get a job either with industry or an agency like the Forest Service. Bark beetles, wildfire, drought, mistletoe, or any other source of mortality are indicative of a “problem.” And while trees dying from natural causes like beetles or fire are looked upon as an indication of “unhealthy” conditions, most foresters have no qualms about killing the trees with chainsaws to promote “forest health.”

One of the first things I do when I read any published paper is look at the affiliation of the researchers and who funds their research. When I read a published article from a range professor, I know that their continued funding depends on them not criticizing livestock grazing. Range professors typically try to do research that promotes cattle grazing.

That doesn’t mean their results are inaccurate or that they have “cooked the books.” It’s just that some questions are not asked or avoided, or the research question is framed in such a way to get specific findings. You won’t last long in a range department if you question livestock grazing and its impacts.

I encountered years ago an excellent example of this sleight of hand when it comes to research. The BLM had a brochure in their offices with a title something like “Riparian Improvements with Cattle Grazing.” After a brief introduction about the ecological importance of riparian areas, the brochure featured ten examples from around the West where riparian areas “improved” with grazing.

I found the idea that grazing benefited riparian areas contrary to everything I knew about cattle grazing and riparian areas. So, I phoned the various offices and researchers featured in the brochure to find out how this contrary evidence could be factual.

In every case, what I discovered is that riparian areas did improve, or at least that is what they claimed. But, putting that aside, here’s the catch.

In all cases, livestock grazing in the riparian area was reduced. Maybe the season of use was shifted from 6 months to 2 months. The total number of cattle permitted on the allotment was significantly reduced, or new range “developments” like pipelines and fences moved the cows out of the riparian area. So in effect, the riparian area improvement was due to a REDUCTION in grazing pressure. If a reduction in livestock grazing improved the riparian areas, it would naturally lead one to ask if the termination of grazing in riparian zones would be the best public policy.

I have seen the same kind of approach in forestry. Most Forest Service researchers and forestry professors get their funding from the timber industry or the Forest Service, which, despite its name, is generally a handmaiden to the timber industry.

The same “follow the money” applies even to conservation groups. Groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Wild Montana, The Wilderness Society, Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, among others, often promote and support logging and ranching on public lands, either due to ignorance of the real impacts or a dubious commitment to “collaboration.”

For instance, I had a staffer for Wild Montana tell me that they supported some logging because the Forest Service promised to close logging roads and remove culverts after they finished a timber sale. He asked me with a straight face (meaning he didn’t get it) why I didn’t support closing roads and removing culverts? I replied that one didn’t have to log and build new roads to remove them later.

I suspect (but have no proof) foundation funding was pushing Wild Montana to participate in collaboratives so they could all claim to have a “win-win.”

Again, not all forestry, range, or wildlife biologists avoid controversial topics, but funding influences findings.

And while peer review of published research is supposed to ensure accuracy, keep in mind that almost all the researchers involved have adopted certain starting assumptions within many disciplines.

For example, consider you submit a paper to a forest ecology journal for review that promotes the idea that our forests are a mess and need fixing by chainsaw medicine. In that case, you are unlikely to get any resistance to the concept from peer reviewers since they all hold the same basic assumption that a “healthy” forest is one without a significant amount of mortality.

Peer review is a good thing, but keep in mind that contrary viewpoints may not be cited in a paper’s literature review or addressed.

All this suggests that if resource extraction by “happy coincidence” is labeled a “benefit” to the environment, one should scrutinize the underlying assumptions. The first step is to see who is funding the research, then see the affiliations of the researchers.

I hasten to add that most scientists, even those promoting resource extraction, do not purposefully distort or lie, but as my graduate seminar professors noted, they may avoid uncomfortable questions to keep their funding sources happy.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy