Timber industry’s influence on OSU under examination

SALEM, Ore. (AP) – Oregon State University’s College of Forestry has its ties to the timber industry, but the industry does not exert undue influence on its academic work, Hal Salwasser, dean of the college, told state lawmakers Friday.

State legislators decided to examine the relationship after some of the college faculty tried to delay a controversial study from being published in Science, a prestigious peer-reviewed journal.

The study, conducted by Oregon State forestry graduate student Daniel Donato and others, concluded that logging after fires kills naturally regenerated seedlings and leaves more wood on the ground as fuel for new wildfires.

The study’s conclusions threatened the political future of a pending bill in Congress that would accelerate logging of burned trees, which is sponsored by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash.

Oregon State has a responsibility to educate students who will be able to work as professionals in the timber industry and be aware of the industry’s needs, Salwasser said, but the allegiance ends there.

"It is absolutely appropriate to receive financial support from those who expect us to meet their needs if we hold to high standards of academic rigor, freedom and responsibility," Salwasser said. "But this does not mean any party … can buy the results they want, whether it is the content of our courses, the findings of our research or the education and outreach we deliver."

Oregon State’s College of Forestry gets about 11 percent of its budget from a tax on timber harvested in the state. Salwasser has testified to Congress on behalf of the school on forestry legislation.

Several of the senators at Friday’s hearing expressed support for Salwasser and Oregon State. And unlike the congressional hearing where Donato and others were grilled on their research methods and results, the meeting remained civil.

"I think all of us want to make sure research conducted at anytime, anywhere in the state leads to scientific conclusions we can trust," said Sen. Frank Shields, D-Portland,

However, a few legislators, including Sen. Charlie Ringo, D-Beaverton, criticized Salwasser’s e-mail communication, which was provided to the committee. Ringo charged that Salwasser had been frequent email communication with industry leaders, coaching them on how to respond to Donato’s findings.

Salwasser said he was trying to make sure the most accurate information was being used. He also said "a number of lessons have been learned" as a result of the turmoil that erupted on campus after reports about faculty attempts to suppress publicity on Donato’s research.

Since the controversy, students and faculty in the forestry school have created committees to address academic integrity. There have been special seminars on the topic and a class on the topic added as well.

"If people were not asking these questions, we’d be in worse shape," said Joe Fontaine, a student who worked on the study. "It’s all out in the open now. I think we’ll have a situation in the future where the dean will stay above the fray."