Between the Lines: What Does the Science Say?

John Hagan the scientist is a bird man—a Neotropical migratory bird man, to be specific—with a doctorate in zoology and a six-year stint as editor of Ornithological Monographs for the American Ornithologists’ Union on his resume.

When he talks about his work as a scientist in the field, Hagan can’t help but use the vocabulary of his profession. In a story he tells about his study of clear-cutting forestry practices in Maine and their impact on migratory bird habitat, terms such as “less charismatic species” and “late-successional forest” spill out casually before Hagan catches himself, remembers that he isn’t talking to a peer, and just as casually offers more accessible alternatives: “lichens and mosses” and “mature forests made up of trees of many different age classes.”

As easy as it is to imagine Hagan trekking through the Great North Woods with binoculars around his neck—a scientist engaged in pure research—there’s another aspect to the man, one that also comes across as he speaks, which makes him seem better suited for time in a board room or meeting hall, talking to citizens about a proposed power plant. When Hagan speaks of “biomass stakeholders” and “value-based decision-making,” the jargon is evidence of his move beyond pure science into the realm of consultancy. He often works on assignments for elected officials who hire him to assess potentially controversial public policy.

When I interviewed Hagan last December, we spoke primarily about his work as president of the Manomet Center for Conservation Science and the firm’s prospective study of biomass energy production in Massachusetts. While Hagan acknowledged that he had looked at some of the issues involved in biomass before, both as a scientist and as a consultant, a team from Manomet was charged with looking at the questions raised here with fresh eyes.

The evening before our interview, Hagan had attended a meeting with nearly 200 “biomass stakeholders” in Holyoke. By his estimate, “99 percent of the people who showed up were opposed [to building biomass plants]. If there was anyone there in favor, they were holding tight.” He emphasized that Manomet had not been hired by Ian Bowles, the state secretary of energy and environment, to look at all the issues driving the opposition.

“The human health effect of air pollution from biomass isn’t part of the study,” Hagan told me. “It’s a very legitimate concern. So are the possible social effects of having a large plant located in your town. But it’s not a question for us.” Instead, Manomet would provide the state with a “carbon accounting of biomass,” as well as an answer to the question, “How much biomass can be sustainably supplied from the forests in Massachusetts?”

While Manomet is finishing its six-month study of biomass, which was scheduled to be released in the next few weeks, the question it was asked to answer has already been indirectly broached by another team of scientists. Last week, the Harvard Forest of Harvard University released a study called Wildlands and Woodlands, authored by 20 scholars in forest science, policy and finance from across New England. The study reports that “forest cover is declining in all six New England states” and calls for the conservation of 70 percent of the region’s forestland, requiring a threefold increase in the amount of protected conservation land.

One of the lead authors of the Harvard Forest report, David Foster, is also a science advisor on the Manomet study. While the Harvard Forest study doesn’t specifically address the biomass issue, Foster said, “Our study gets at the larger issues that hang over biomass. … It attempts to put the discussion of forest use and protection into a broader context.”

Foster, who was in the process of reviewing a draft of the Manomet study when I spoke to him, echoed a comment Hagan made last December: in the long run, forest health is important to the industries that make, sell or use wood products, and those industries are important to the economic health of many rural communities. While such observations aren’t scientific in nature, Foster and Hagan offer them as a reminder that, for all that separates various stakeholders, they all have a stake in forests and need to work together to protect them.

Whatever the state decides to do in light of the Manomet study, Foster said, “before we commit to managing biomass, we need to make a commitment to protect the forest base.”

Author: Tom Vannah

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