The Best Science at the Time

If anyone ever tells you that the science is settled on a topic, be very skeptical. Science is rarely settled. New technology, new methods, new information and new ideas will keep scientists busy for the rest of forever. As a landowner, manager or forester we cannot wait until the science is settled before we act or make a decision. We must rely on the “best science at the time,” and then move forward.

I was reminded of this by several Woodland Steward readers this past year that took the time to write a letter or send an email regarding problems we face today because the “best science at the time,” 40 or 50 plus years ago has come back to haunt us.

Looking back at pre-European Indiana when it was 85% forest land makes me wish my ancestors would not have cleared, burned, stripped, plowed under and removed so much of the forestland in Indiana. But they were trying to survive. They had to build cities, towns, roads, clear land for agriculture and scratch out a living the hard way. I cannot judge what they did in the past by today’s understanding of ecology, forestry and wildlife management. And if we jump back to the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Foresters and Wildlife Biologists were trying to grow back Indiana’s forests and wildlands and stop massive erosion problems. The states natural resources were so depleted that we were desperate to restore anything we could. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) planted a lot of pine in Indiana to help stop erosion, cool the land and allow native species to seed back in. Most pine species are not native to Indiana, but they did not have access to the native hardwood tree nurseries that we have today. The pine did its job and reminds us of the massive ecological problems they were dealing with in the 1930s.  

Many of the problems we face with invasive species today are the result of the best science of the time trying to solve ecological problems of the past. Invasive plants were embraced and planted at a time when foresters, wildlife biologists, soil scientists and landscapers were desperate to establish any shrub that would produce lots of food for wildlife and provide cover and shelter. I know many foresters that planted alternating rows of black walnut and autumn olive. The thought was that autumn olive would fix nitrogen in the soil, help the walnuts grow and suppress the weeds around the walnut seedlings. And it worked. It was the best science of the time. But now we know better. We know that autumn olive is an invasive nightmare, because it produces a lot of fruit, the wildlife love it and it spreads like crazy suppressing many native plants that we want to grow.

There are many examples of situations just like this where the best science of the time, may turn out not to be the best idea. But more often than not science leads us to a new and better understanding of the world we live in and helps us make good decisions. In our second issue of the Woodland Steward in 1992 we featured our first article on invasive species. We reviewed herbicide options and application methods for controlling multiflora rose. Fortunately, we now know that invasive species are not good for the environment and best way to stop the problem of invasive species is stop bringing in new invasive species.

The Woodland Steward tries to keep you the landowner up to date on the science of the time. We showcase recommendations, provide information and suggest new management techniques. We need to be open to the best science of the time but understand that sometimes it may not work out the way we hope, or it may have unintended consequences, but doing nothing is typically not a good choice either. We included a donation envelope with this issue of the Woodland Steward and hope that you value the Woodland Steward Newsletter enough to help us keep printing and mailing it out three times a year. Thank you for reading and writing to us with questions, thoughts and ideas.


Dan Shaver