OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

NSF grant brings humanities into the forest to imagine future impacts of climate change

11/06/2009

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The H.J Andrews Experimental Forest will soon host a variety of poets, writers and artists who will look at the next 150 years, imagining what impact climate change will have on the land, and what the landscape will look like in the coming century as a result of these changes.

This new project, funded as a supplemental project to the National Science Foundation-sponsored Long-Term Ecological Research program, which has operated since 1980, will include four sites that will build events and communications around the theme of “Future Scenarios of Landscape Change.”

The Andrews Experimental Forest, located in the Oregon Cascade Range, is one of 26 sites in the nation’s Long Term Ecological Research Program. It is a key source of information about Northwest forest management, riparian zones, endangered species and many other critical environmental issues. Six years ago, the Long-Term Ecological Reflections program was launched to bring the humanities and arts into the same place where forest scientists work.

The sites selected for funding from NSF include Bonanza Creek in Fairbanks, Alaska; Harvard Forest in Massachusetts, North Temperate Lakes in Madison, Wis., and the Long-Term Ecological Reflections program at Andrews Forest, a project of OSU’s Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word and with support from the US Forest Service. Each site will receive $30,000 over a two-year period to conduct collaborative programs designed to engage people in the humanities and arts to conceive and communicate about the future.

“Historians will tell you that what we think we know about the past is uncertain,” said Fred Swanson, a U.S. Forest Service geologist with a courtesy appointment at OSU. “Clearly, the future is even more uncertain. Part of the role that the humanities can have in understanding landscape change is to give voice to that uncertainty and explore the big picture of what this all means not just in terms of the changes on the land itself, but how it impacts social change and our relationship with the land and each other.”

Kathleen Dean Moore, a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at OSU and director of the Spring Creek Project, is researching and writing on the topic of responsibilities to future generations. She said this future-focused project couldn’t come at a better time.

“This is a pivotal time for a project like this,” she said. “We are in a position to wreck the future, quite literally. When you are talking about the future, you are talking about losses and there will be grief associated with the loss of habitats and ecosystems. We need scientific modeling, but we also need the people who can communicate these conflicts and these feelings.”

To Moore, this is the beauty of the Andrews Experimental Forest and what the Spring Creek Project brings to the forest. She said there is no question of the need for empirical scientific data on the impacts of climate change. In the past though, the role of artists, writers and philosophers was not always clear.

“There is a role, a very important role, for normative data, which is asking what do we value and what do we hope to achieve?” Moore said. “If we know what it is we value and what we want to do, then we can determine what we ought to do as a society. Philosophers and writers are the guardians of this kind of cultural discourse.”

Swanson and Charles Goodrich, program director for the Spring Creek Project, said they plan to bring together stakeholders, including scientists, urban planners, forestry and agricultural policy makers, timber company owners, together with writers and philosophers for a series of events focused on the future scenarios of climate change and a changing landscape. All four of the sites across the country will network and share lessons from their regional workshops on this topic.

“As OSU moves toward integrating the humanities and environmental science, here is an example of how to do it to address future issues,” Moore said. “It is a model of how a land grant university utilizes its resources and comes together to work on climate change issues.”