Forest Service fire experts blocked from attending major fire conference

by Missoulian, Rob Chaney

Several of Missoula’s top federal fire scientists have been denied permission to attend the International Fire Congress later this month, leading conference organizers to suspect censorship of climate-related research.

“Anyone who has anything related to climate-change research – right away was rejected,” said Timothy Ingalsbee of the Association for Fire Ecology, a nonprofit group putting on the gathering. Ingalsbee noted that was his personal opinion, and that the AFE is concerned that a federal travel restriction policy may be more to blame.

“Most of the folks from the Missoula fire lab, the vanguard entity in the Forest Service – all but a handful got cut. We were expecting about 44 scientists from the Rocky Mountain Research Station, and only six or seven have been permitted to attend,” Ingalsbee said. “Those folks are doing critical analysis on fire suppression effectiveness, which is a new area of research.”

“I reject that outright,” Rocky Mountain Research Station Director Colin Hardy said Wednesday. “As a leader of scientists and manager of climate science research, that’s simply not true.”

Hardy said the Forest Service allowed his lab to send six people to the Orlando conference. He had 20 applicants.

“My choices didn’t have anything to do with a particular subject,” Hardy said. “We were offered six slots to fill. There was no criteria or requirement for the kinds of people or things they talked about.”

Instead, Hardy said there are four criteria he followed to choose whom to send. They included an applicant’s potential role at the conference (presenter, organizer), how well their research niche fit the conference goals, and whether attending would have a valuable effect on the person’s professional service record.

Hardy said he didn’t even get to the fourth criterion, which considers budget efficiency through the federal Meeting Management System. He said because the whole Forest Service was only allotted 50 slots to attend the conference, funding for the travel was not an issue.

The scientists no longer attending include Matt Jolly, who was to present new work on “Climate-induced variations in global severe weather fire conditions,” Karin Riley on “Fuel treatment effects at the landscape level: burn probabilities, flame lengths and fire suppression costs,” Mike Battaglia on “Adaptive silviculture for climate change: Preparing dry mixed conifer forests for a more frequent fire regime,” and Dave Calkin, who was working on ways to manage the human response to wildfire.

“None of his crew is coming,” Ingalsbee said of Calkin’s research team. “That was another targeted area for rejection, even though the great frontier of fire management is people management. That’s about crew cohesion, safety, public expectations, homeowners – all that stuff. They’re doing the most amazing work on risk assessment.

“Instead of blindly attacking all fires in all places, be strategic. Where do we put young bodies and taxpayers’ dollars? That work could save billions of dollars and hundred of lives by being rational and strategic in how we fight fire. All of them got eliminated.”

University of Montana fire ecologist Phil Higuera attended the 2015 International Fire Congress and is familiar with the studies of Jolly and Riley.

“They’ve both done a lot of valuable and widely recognized work, focusing on how wildland fire is related to climate variability and climate change,” Higuera said of Jolly and Riley. “I understand restricting travel because of budgets. But when travel is restricted based on the topic you’re presenting on, that’s really concerning.”

Hardy said climate change had no impact on his choice of attendees.

“Matt Jolly is a scientist I supervise,” Hardy said. “He’s a world-renowned researcher of climate-weather fire relationships. Had I chosen just for the impact of a particular single paper, that’s the one I would have chosen. We’re keen to get that word out. But when you stack up role, niche or service, he didn’t make it.”

Association for Fire Ecology President and University of Idaho professor Leda Kobziar raised the issue in an Oct. 9 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. She noted that more than 100 federal fire experts hadn’t received approval to attend the Orlando conference.

“In this epic wildfire season characterized by historic spending on wildfire suppression, there is an urgent need for fire managers and scientists to meet and discuss strategies for how to best provide for the public welfare by effectively managing fire and fuels into the future,” Kobziar wrote.”For the cost of five retardant loads from a single large air tanker, over 110 federal fire scientists and managers’ staff could attend a typical fire management conference or workshop.”

Ingalsbee noted that travel difficulties for federal officials started under the Obama administration, after a scandalous 2012 General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas resulted in creation of the Meetings Management System. That policy required agency leaders to closely scrutinize all employee travel.

Trump Administration Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney relaxed those rules in June, noting the travel reviews had “become incredibly burdensome for agencies.”

But at the same time, travel restrictions on certain issues became more noticeable. In July, Zinke’s office prohibited U.S. Geological Survey scientist Dan Fagre from meeting with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg during a visit to Glacier National Park. In October, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials blocked three federal scientists from presenting work at a climate change conference in Rhode Island.

The 2015 International Fire Congress brought together 578 fire experts, including 180 federal employees. Only 48 Forest Service employees have been approved to attend the 2017 conference, 12 of whom are scientists.

Hardy said he didn’t know who made the decision to reduce Forest Service participation. He did say attendance at such significant international conferences are made at the Secretary of Agriculture’s office, which oversees the Forest Service.

“In the past, I couldn’t detect any real pattern in the Meeting Management System,” Ingalsbee said. “Everyone was equally randomly cut, based on the whims of supervisors. But in this case – wow – it seems not coincidental. No climate change researcher from the Forest Service is permitted to go. They’re not blatantly rejecting people, just refusing to sign the papers authorizing their travel. It’s an insidious means of silencing scientists without blatantly censoring them.”