Sunday, 8 June 2014

A no-good experiment

I recently received an email asking me to comment on an ecological thinning experiment proposed for the Red Gum Forests of Victoria. The objective of the experiment is to qualify any ecological benefits of allowing the reallocation of resources (water, sunlight and nutrients) amongst trees by felling some and leaving others. The experiment was proposed after extensive die back of the Red Gum was observed and presumed to be due to over competition for limited water.

The person who sent me the email obviously believed that humans should not be interfering at all and included in their email messages like "serious concerns" for "a disruptive scientific experiment in a national park"; "commercial logging machinery fell[ing] large numbers of trees" and that the "trial could again open this forest, and others in Eastern Australia to logging". They obviously do not want to provide any avenue for commercial activity (or even machinery that could be used in a commercial activity) in the forest, presumably even if the experiment concluded that ecological thinning was beneficial to keeping trees alive and improving biodiversity. Their conclusion that "the trial could impact the forest’s natural ability to respond to variability and climate change", and that this was a bad thing, proved to me that they didn't really want my opinion as a scientist as they would never accept any argument not in favour of keeping manipulative humans out of the forest.

I have researched the "forests's natural ability to respond to variability and climate change". The response tends to be dominated by death and invasion by new species into an area - trees and other species die then something moves in to utilise the resources "freed up". It takes humans to "judge" whether such a response is "good" or "bad" - for example, most humans agree that the widespread deaths in Canada caused by the pine beetle explosion are a "bad outcome". The significant quantities of dead wood left behind the pine beetle may make things even "worse" as far as humans are concerned by increasing the risk of further pathogen or pest attack and large scale wild fire. And any new species coming in in response to the change will invariably be classified as "weeds", which is again a very human centric concept and really just a part of a forest's natural response. Thinning may reduce the build up of beetles by reducing stress on the remaining trees and thus improve those trees' ability to fight off attack. Similarly, thinning and removal of dead wood from the site may reduce the quantity of "food" that is providing a resource for pathogens and insects to exploit.

You might guess that, as a human scientist, I am not opposed to the ecologically thinning experiment in the Red Gum Forests. Provided it is a well designed experiment, I think we can learn some valuable things about the dynamics of the forests in the current stressful and varying environment. I am also not philosophically opposed to humans being involved in active management or intervention in our environment. I do not believe that intervention is automatically bad if there is the potential for it to be at least partially funded by product sales. But as I was thinking about my response to the original email request, I wondered if I was being consistent.

Not too long ago, I was troubled by a Government decision to allow mining exploration in a National Park. Similar to the above anti-experimenter, regardless of the outcome of the exploration I did not want large scale mining to proceed in that national park. Why am I comfortable with denying the creation of knowledge about mineral or energy reserves but uncomfortable with denying forest knowledge creation? The miners could claim that better knowledge of the reserves would allow better management, and maybe even more ecologically sound management if they found reserves that could be mined with less damage than in other areas. Although I doubt "the market" would allow the miners to close down a relatively harmful mine in response to opening a less harmful mine, my objection to mapping all the reserves would remove that remote opportunity altogether. But I think the main difference between these two scenarios is that a new mine in a National Park can, at best, damage the forest a little bit but at worse can damage it a lot, while the thinning experiment may at worse damage a few trees while at best may result in many trees retaining a healthy canopy cover and long term future. The risk of damage must be balanced again the potential gains and the risk that those potential reductions will not eventuate. I have little faith that mining exploration will ever lead to long term ecological benefit.

Finally, I must also admit that I have the (possibly naive) belief that the conclusions from the ecological thinning experiment will be interpreted and used by people who understand Science to lead to an improved environment. All too often though, scientific observations have been taken out of context, ignored or abused in an attempt to justify a preconceived action. While Climate Change denial is the current prime example of such abuse, such abuse does appear in many other places and may have led to general scepticism about politicians and company management. I suppose my anti-experimenter who started my thinking about this post is more honest than many - they don't really care what the science says, and therefore do not need an experiment or need to consider manipulation or abuse of its findings, because they believe it is "good" for man to leave the forest and just let things fall as they do. On the other hand, I think it is natural for humans to be in the forest and be a part of it ...taking and giving.

1 comment:

  1. A well thought through argument! Takes guts to admit to "doublethink", and to admit your anathema emailer may have done something right :-)
    I enjoy your complicated brain puzzles, although could never hope to emulate them.
    You set it out for me to see. So thankyou!