Prescribed burns can aid in efforts to reduce severity of wildfires
Nov15

Prescribed burns can aid in efforts to reduce severity of wildfires

Forest fires have a tendency to evoke images of Smoky the Bear warnings or Bambi and company fleeing for their lives. However, often underreported are the benefits prescribed forest fires can have on ecosystems and human communities. This summer, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) published its first online-only special issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, which examined the impacts of prescribed burning in North America in addition to several other locations around the world. Prescribed burns are meant to mimic the impact of natural fires, caused by lightning, or the smaller intentional fires traditionally produced by Native Americans. In the last century, fire suppression activities have focused on the protection of property and keeping parks pretty, dramatically diminishing fire frequency throughout the West. As a consequence, ecosystems change. Species that evolved with fire lose their competitive edge. Dense growth fills the forest understory, savannas become forests, and brush clogs grasslands.  When forest fires do occur, they are often more intense, more damaging and more costly to mitigate, thanks to the extra fuel. Prescribed burns reduce fire intensity by reducing tree density in a forest ecosystem. Prescribed burns also curtail the proliferation of fire-sensitive species, helping to promote species diversity in an ecosystem. In the most recent edition of the Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, ESA Rapid Response Team member Matthew Hurteau discusses his research on wildfires. Hurteau’s research focuses on the various ways in which climate change exacerbates fire risk, due to warming temperatures and longer more frequent droughts. Hurteau explained the benefits of prescribed burns during a visit with policymakers on Capitol Hill. For much of the past ten years, the US Forest Service has had to borrow from other agency accounts in order to cover expenses of mitigating wildfires, which have increased in frequency in recent years. According to testimony before Congress from USFS Chief Tom Tidwell, fire suppression activities as a share of the agency’s total budget has burgeoned from 13 percent in Fiscal Year (FY) 1991 to 40 percent in FY 2012. Given the demonstrated capability of prescribed burns to reduce the risk, and consequently the costly damage, of severe wildfires, implementing such ecologically friendly practices nationwide could not only help save lives and protect natural resources, but also help key natural resource agencies stay on budget. Photo Credit: Steve McKelvey: US Forest...

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Sowing the seeds of support for science
Sep23

Sowing the seeds of support for science

Growing fiscal constraints as well as a growing distrust of science among some factions of the conservative movement have made it harder to reach the bipartisan consensus on science issues that existed in days of yore. The House Science, Space and Technology Committee, once a sanctuary from political sparring, has now fallen into the soap opera-style partisan rivalries more commonplace in committees with jurisdiction over hot button issues related to social or fiscal policy. Earlier this month, the House was scheduled to take up H.R. 1891, the Science Laureates of the United States Act of 2013, which would allow the president to appoint a Science Laureate of the United States to encourage young people to pursue careers in science. Despite the Republican chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee being an enthusiastic lead cosponsor, the bill was pulled by House leaders over concern from conservative groups that President Obama would appoint an individual who would promote a partisan agenda related to climate change. Issues related to science were not always so polarizing. As late as the past decade, substantive legislation to authorize funding for scientific research was signed by a Republican president after passing a Republican Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. In 2002, the National Science Foundation Authorization Act passed a Republican-controlled House with a lopsided 397-25 vote, was met with swift passage in the Democratic-controlled Senate by unanimous consent and was signed by Republican President George W. Bush. More recently, the initial America COMPETES Act passed the then-Democratic-controlled House with bipartisan support from leaders of both parties by a 367-57 vote margin in 2007 and was also signed by President Bush. In stark contrast, the America COMPETES Reauthorization bill, passed just three years later, passed the Senate by unanimous consent, but was opposed by a majority of House Republicans (16 supported, 130 opposed). When Republicans garnered control of the House after the Nov. 2010 mid-terms, buttressed by (and now arguably reliant upon) political support of the tea party movement, there have been marked increases in legislative attempts to curtail scientific processes. There have been increasing legislative attempts to unilaterally delist various species from protection under the Endangered Species Act without traditional scientific input, additional requirements placed upon the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) merit review process and even a successful effort to at least temporarily limit NSF’s ability to fund political science research. It should be noted that while the latter was pushed by a Republican Senator, there was not sufficient vocal opposition from either of the major political parties to prevent the provision from being signed into law. In the most recent edition of The Ecologist...

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The role of science investment in community and professional development
Aug19

The role of science investment in community and professional development

Amid all the partisan turmoil in Congress, it seems Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate have actually reached a consensus on one issue – that the administration’s proposal to consolidate Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education programs needs to go back to the drawing board. The proposal, first introduced in the president’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget request, would reduce programs across all federal agencies from 226 to 112 and house them under the National Science Foundation (NSF) (undergraduate and graduate), the Department of Education (K-12) and the Smithsonian Institution (informal education programs). Agencies that have traditionally sponsored STEM programs and fellowships such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration would see their initiatives consolidated under the aforementioned agencies. Key leaders in both the House and Senate concur that the administration has not sufficiently clarified its rationale for eliminating certain programs nor has it sufficiently collaborated or sought input from the science and education communities. This sentiment was most recently expressed by the Senate Commerce Justice and Science Subcommittee in its report that accompanied the subcommittee’s Fiscal Year 2014 appropriations bill: “While the Committee maintains its support of greater efficiencies and consolidation – as evident by adopting some of the STEM consolidation recommendations made by the administration’s budget request – the Committee has concerns that the proposal as a whole has not been thoroughly vetted with the education community or congressional authorizing committees, and lacks thorough guidance and input from Federal agencies affected by this proposal, from both those that stand to lose education and outreach programs and from those that stand to gain them.” The report notes that the administration’s STEM strategic plan was released in May, a month after the budget request and that the reorganization proposal, as laid out in the budget request, does not fully clarify how it will meet the goals mandated by the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-358). Consequently, the committee report language effectively defers implementation of the consolidation proposal “until such time that OSTP, in working with these and other Federal science agencies, finalizes the STEM program assessments as required by America COMPETES.” The House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee report also disparages the Administration’s proposal: “The ideas presented in the budget request lack any substantive implementation plan and have little support within the STEM education community. In addition, the request conflicts with several findings and activities of the National Science and Technology Council Committee on STEM Education, most notably on the question of whether agency mission-specific fellowship and scholarship programs are a viable target...

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Federal research investment and its benefits for society
Jul19

Federal research investment and its benefits for society

In seeking to improve fiscal restraint through a federal budget that has burgeoned over the past decade (largely due to expansion of mandatory spending coupled with decreased revenue intake), lawmakers have been eyeing numerous areas of discretionary spending, including scientific research due to the fact that cutting spending in these areas is more politically feasible than addressing the growth of entitlement programs or revenue-raising tax reform. When reviewing scientific research investments, some lawmakers have set their sights on research with no immediately apparent applied benefit as well as on research they perceive as politically-motivated. Regarding the latter, much criticism among House Republicans has been leveled at government efforts to fund research on environmental issues like climate change or hydraulic fracturing, partially out of concern that these efforts are  at the expense of industry and economic development. During a recent meeting of the Biological and Ecological Sciences Coaltion with a Member of Congress in a district where hydraulic fracturing (also called “fracking”) is practiced, the Congressman asked the scientists with whom he was meeting why additional research is necessary given that existing information suggests that the practice is safe. In the most recent edition of The Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, Carlos Silva discusses his response to this question. Carlos suggested continued research into fracking could benefit the industry in the long-term by uncovering new methods that ultimately improve efficiency or validate the safety of the practice and expand acceptance of its commercial use. Carlos noted that it was National Science Foundation research in geology that contributed to the technology. In the podcast, he also discussed past meetings he’s had with the Maryland delegation and the bipartisan support for research to understand algal blooms and to remedy water quality issues in the Chesapeake Bay, which provides a multitude of local commercial and economic benefits to surrounding communities in the region. While researchers seem to agree that the process of hydraulic fracturing itself does not cause earthquakes, evidence suggests a connection to the wastewater disposal process In addition, communities are concerned about possible contamination of their drinking water.  Research on this evolving energy extraction process can lead to better strategies and show if some concerns are unwarranted. Scientific research improves our knowledge with regard to how to better cope with changes to the environment in a more cost-effective way. One of the central themes of this year’s Climate Leadership Conference outlined how coping with the various aspects of climate change can save businesses billions of dollars in insurance through investing in extreme weather-resistant infrastructure and energy-saving initiatives. In another example, research into understanding how floodplains work, provides us with knowledge on how...

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In defense of federally-funded research
Jun27

In defense of federally-funded research

A continued drive towards fiscal belt-tightening by lawmakers in Congress has spurred unprecedented attempts to curb federal investment in scientific research. With a continued unwillingness by members of both major parties in Congress to tackle a comprehensive bipartisan plan to reduce the national debt that includes mandatory spending reform and tax reform, non-defense discretionary spending programs are continuing to be scrutinized for initiatives that seem duplicative or frivolous. For discretionary spending programs that fund scientific research, this means targeting grant proposals that may be perceived as frivolous. The highlighting of research initiatives is nothing new. However, until recently, the lambasting of such programs was usually limited to a minority of lawmakers. These attempts to belittle the value of certain areas of scientific research were often tempered by members from both parties with more expertise on scientific research issues who recognize the role science investment plays in maintaining the United State’s global competitiveness.  Unfortunately, political extremists have grown to a level of influence that now a certain degree of catering to their agenda is apparently necessary to sustain normal order. Just this past March, Congress approved by voice vote an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) to the Consolidated and Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 (P.L. 113-6) prohibiting the National Science Foundation (NSF) from funding political science research unless such research was certified to promote the national security or economic interests of the United States. The fact that the language was passed by voice vote meant that no Senator sought to contest the amendment during floor debate in a meaningful way. More recently, House, Space, Science and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) floated a draft bill, the High Quality Research Act, which would require NSF to certify that every research project meet certain criteria as being in the national interest of the United States.  Though the draft legislation has garnered no shortage of push back, both from inside and outside Capitol Hill, federal efforts to redirect how science funding is distributed and determine what projects are funded are expected to continue, nonetheless. In the latest edition of The Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, Matthew Berg, a recipient of ESA’s 2013 Graduate Student Policy Award, discusses his interactions with congressional offices who questioned the value of certain science research projects. Berg stressed the importance of emphasizing local connections that resonate with each particular congressional office. “Tailoring the message to each individual office was hugely important. I addressed the importance of [Texas A&M University] as a local economic driver to the local congressman I met with first. I pointed to water supply issues to the Senator from the San Antonio and Edwards...

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Sequestration impacts national park summer destinations
Jun03

Sequestration impacts national park summer destinations

By Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst Planning a summer visit to a US national park this summer? The parks will be open, but the overall quality of the trip may be somewhat lessened due to the ongoing budget sequestration which went into effect March 1. Since then, Congress has legislatively decreased the burden for some federal programs whose responsibilities hit close to home. After Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asserted that sequestration would lead to furloughs for meat inspectors, Congress wholly neutralized the sequester for federal meat inspections (at least the threat of tainted meat can still spur quick bipartisan action among federal lawmakers). Faced with increased travel delays on their own flights to and from Washington, Congress also took action to end furloughs for air traffic controllers. Outside of those actions, federal agencies have received little relief from Congress in minimizing negative impacts to vital programs. One misconception is the degree of leeway federal agencies have in the implementation of sequestration. The across-the-board cuts are mandated to occur equally across all federal programs unless Congress has legislatively either added or redirected funding. Among federal entities struggling to cope is the National Park Service. In the most recent edition of The Ecologist Goes to Washington, 2013 Ecological Society of America Graduate Student Policy Award winner Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie discusses the impacts of sequestration on her federally funded research at Acadia National Park and Congress’ apparent acceptance of sequestration as here to stay. Indeed, to the outside observer, Congress seems to have ceased work on a “grand bargain” to neutralize the sequester for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2013 and is returning to a “business as usual” mindset, despite the fact that, as MacKenzie elaborates, business is very much not usual for many researchers and conservationists across the country: By mid-April when we were in DC, it seemed like people in DC had kind of forgotten about the sequester–that it had lost this immediacy, but for me it was still a very immediate thing, so during the Congressional Visits Day, I talked about the sequester every chance I got. And I was really lucky that my lab had NSF [National Science Foundation] funding when my Park Service grant was sequestered and that kind of fit into our narrative of asking for sustained NSF support…..but I also wanted use this opportunity to remind my congress people that the sequester was already hurting science…I’m also surrounded by a bunch of people who work for the National Park Service and are facing similar challenges… This past Earth Day, Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell elaborated on the impacts sequestration will have...

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Wolf conservation efforts furthered by emphasizing shared goals

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst There is often a great deal of discussion over the need to enage policymakers on the importance of scientific research. However, scheduling meetings with their elected representatives is not the sole recourse scientists have in informing the public. As recent Ecological Society of America Graduate Student Policy Award winner Matthew Schuler points out in the latest The Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, engaging with one’s own local community can be of equal (if not more) importance in influencing public policy. After all, policymakers are ultimately subject to the will of their constituents, so networking with these constituents directly and forming a continued dialogue on the important role research has in their own community can have the long-term domino effect of influencing how federal, state and local lawmakers prioritize research investment in the communities they represent. Schuler notes that a consensus approach to wolf management includes balancing conservation efforts and the various needs of both human communities and wolf packs. To the ire of some, this can include the forced removal of wolf populations from city areas through either transplanting wolves or “humanely put them down,” as Schuler describes it. In the podcast, Schuler uses his experiences with the Timber Wolf Information Network (TWIN) in Wisconsin as an example of how positive community engagement has altered the perception local rod and gun clubs have of wolves. Schuler notes that research has demonstrated that the presence of wolves corresponds with a larger number of sturdier, healthier bucks with larger antlers.  Predation by wolves tends to pick off the weakest, less desirable  animals such as deer prized by hunters. Hence, the members of these clubs were much more supportive of the work of TWIN when they came to understand how they benefitted from wolf conservation efforts. In the wake of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision late last year to delist Great Lakes wolves from the Endangered Species Act, TWIN continues to work with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and other interested parties on wolf management efforts in the region. The network is currently following the government’s plans  for Wisconsin’s first wolf hunt since 1957. The hunt is slated to occur in October. In the meantime, TWIN continues to post links keeping its membership abreast of related news and updates. Photo credits: Sometimesong, HyperLemon...

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The American alligator and its importance to the Florida Everglades

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst Critics of the Endangered Species Act have sought to brand it as unsuccessful saying that only one percent of species listed have fully recovered and been delisted since it was first enacted. In response, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) released a report entitled “On Time, On Target: How the Endangered Species Act Is Saving America’s Wildlife,” documenting the successful recovery of federally protected species. The study notes that, on average, it takes species several decades from their initial listing to fully recover. The CBD report concludes that 90 percent of species currently listed under the Endangered Species Act are on track to meet recovery goals set by federal scientists. A noteworthy success story among the “one percent” is the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). The American alligator was first listed as endangered in 1967, due to poorly regulated hunting and habitat loss. It was among the landmark “Class of ’67,” the first class of 78 species to warrant federal protection under the precursor to the existing endangered species law. Delisting of the alligator species began in 1975 in certain parts of Louisiana and it was delisted throughout the remainder of the South by 1987. Among the last remnants from the age of the dinosaurs, this reptile is the central focus of study for Adam Rosenblatt, one of this year’s three Ecological Society of America (ESA) Graduate Student Policy Award winners. Adam Rosenblatt discusses his research on the American alligator and its importance to the Florida Everglades in a recent edition of The Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast. Rosenblatt, a Ph.D. student at Florida International University, has been researching this animal through the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research Program, which is part of the Long Term Ecological Research Network, established by the National Science Foundation in 1980. As the top predator of the Everglades, says Rosenblatt, alligators have a large impact on the ecosystem through their interactions with and consumption of other animals. He notes that in addition to its importance to recreation and tourism, the Everglades are the primary drinking source for South Floridians. Perhaps the greatest contribution the alligator makes to the ecosystem and its inhabitants are ‘gator holes’ that adults create and expand year by year. These submerged depressions tend to stay full of water throughout the dry season and even extended droughts, providing critical sustenance for fish, insects, snakes, turtles, birds and other wildlife that inhabits the ecosystem. Thus, sustaining the prevalence of the wild American Alligator population is critical for sustaining the Florida Everglades and all the life, humans included, that depend on...

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