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.
“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. Those folks are doing critical analysis on fire suppression effectiveness, which is a new area of research.”
Research Station Director Colin Hardy said on Tuesday he was not allowed to discuss the travel arrangements without approval from the U.S. Forest Service’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. Requests for comment from the Forest Service were not returned by midday Wednesday.
“Our front line supervisors and managers weigh a variety of factors including cost, frequency of employee travel, conference location, the number of other employees attending, among other factors in making our business decisions about conference attendance,” spokesman Mike Illenberg wrote in a statement to the news website Climate Wire on Tuesday. “Based on their recommendations and resource availability, Forest Service leadership gives final approval.”
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.”
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 Budget and Management 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.
“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.”