Science's Role in Natural Resource Decisions: Collaborative Efforts That Rely on Local Knowledge as Well as Science Are Key to Resolving Difficult Land Use Issues

Article excerpt

The call for land management and regulatory agencies to center their decision processes on "sound science" or "good science" has become a kind of mantra, so that no speech or directive about natural resource decisionmaking is any longer thought to be complete without some recourse to these magic words. At a House Natural Resource Committee hearing on February 5, 2002, for example, the committee's chairman, Rep. James Hansen (R-Utah), urged reform of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) so that it is grounded "in sound science, not political ideology." Such examples could be cited endlessly; the challenge would be to find a policy proclamation that does not contain such a reference. Perhaps the capstone of this phenomenon was provided by the Clinton administration when it decided to appoint a citizens committee to recommend changes in the Forest Service's planning regulations. Rather than entrust the task to planners or public administrators, the secretary of Agriculture appointed a "committee of scientists." If w e expect scientists to have some privileged understanding of planning regulations, it is hardly surprising that we consistently invoke good science as the sole reliable path to sound resource decisions.

But this invocation has become as problematic as it is ubiquitous. In fact, almost every time someone calls for centering some policy or decision on sound science, we simply compound the problem. And we will continue to compound it until we begin to recognize that we are still using a century-old and increasingly outdated view of the relationship between science and natural resource management. This nexus was woven into the very fabric of public policy, and especially of resource policy, by the Progressive movement at the turn of the last century.

The Progressives believed that science could and should transform public policy as thoroughly as it had already transformed physical existence. The hard certainties that science produced could now begin to replace the notorious uncertainties so often produced by politics. City government, for example, would be transformed by replacing elected mayors [who made decisions in the old-fashioned, messy (if not actually corrupt) political way] with professional managers who would apply political science to city problems. Replacing traditional decision processes in an embedded context like city hall presented a much greater challenge than the brand new arena of resource management, where the scientific approach had the whole field to itself. Under the aggressive leadership of people like Gifford Pinchot, Progressivism entered that field with a vengeance. The Forest Service, for example, was born under that star; the agency built its identity and based its very substantial institutional pride on its commitment to prof essional, science-centered resource management.

Now, a century later, politicians and others are repeatedly urging land and resource management agencies to put even more weight on the old Progressive model. That is precisely what Hansen was doing when he criticized the ESA. It was what Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey had done in a milder form when he declared, during a presentation of the Forest Service budget to a Senate committee on February 12, 2002, that, "the budget underscores the Forest Service as a science-based organization." Pinchot could have used language like that a century ago, and the science of the day would have given credibility to his assertion. But science itself has not stood still in the intervening century. As the 20th century progressed, the radical predictability of Newtonian physics (upon which the Progressive faith so largely rested) began to be assaulted by the equally radical unpredictability first identified as a principle of quantum physics. Although there remained, of course, a vast range of highly predictable phenome na, much of the universe now had to be understood as inherently impossible to forecast. …