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A wildland firefighter takes a break amid thick smoke near the site of a back burn operation on the south end of the Lolo Peak fire on Aug. 28. 

Department of Agriculture officials say a decision to limit the number of federal scientists attending a major fire conference was an exercise in good management, not information control.

“What it really comes down to is the agency managers at the research-station level are using critical thinking skills about who are the best people to send to these conferences,” USDA spokesman Mike Illenberg said. “We’re not just sending employees to random conferences. We’re looking across the board where they can get their best bang for the buck.”

The issue arose when members of the Association for Fire Ecology protested the reduction by nearly two-thirds of the number of federal fire experts attending the seventh International Fire Ecology and Management Congress in Orlando, Florida, later this month.

About 20 fire researchers from the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula were planning to present or participate at the conference, but only six were approved to travel.

Association for Fire Ecology President and University of Idaho professor Leda Kobziar wrote Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue that more than 100 USDA and DOI scientists and managers weren’t approved for attending the conference. The sixth annual conference in 2015 gathered 578 fire experts, including 180 federal employees. Only 50 federal fire experts are expected to attend the 2017 conference.

“As taxpayers, our members share the goal of avoiding wasteful government spending, but restricting fire managers and scientists from meeting at conferences is a case of being penny-wise, pound-foolish,” Kobziar wrote. “We believe that the opportunity for scientists and managers to meet face-to-face to address current problems is a worthy investment of taxpayer dollars that holds one of the best hopes of developing solutions for reducing rising wildfire losses.”

Illenberg said the Forest Service allocated $110,000 for the 2017 conference, which was expected to be enough to cover about 50 participants. The agency budgeted $160,000 for 76 employees in 2015. Those figures don’t include participation by agencies in the Department of the Interior, such as the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service or Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“USDA Forest Service leadership in Washington did not consider the topic/title of the presentations and they were not included in the meetings management package sent up for final approval,” Illenberg added in an email. “Forest Service researchers and managers have many ways to communicate their research findings, professional conferences being but one of them. Professional journal articles are a primary source of publishing and sharing research.”

Illenberg added that the participation limit was made at the Forest Service level, not at the Secretary of Agriculture level as previously stated. Forest Service spending decisions don’t need Cabinet-level approval unless they exceed $450,000.

“We don’t micromanage by agency,” Illenberg said. “This isn’t something the secretary or the political staff at the department would weigh in on.”

Several of the Missoula-based researchers were planning to present work showing how climate change was affecting forest fire behavior. Their lack of participation in the Orlando conference followed other examples of government employees facing restrictions on publicizing climate-change-related subjects, including at the Environmental Protection Agency, National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey.

On Wednesday, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., sent a letter to Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke asking for an explanation of the fire expert travel restrictions and encouraging Tooke to increase participation. On Friday, Tester spokeswoman Marnee Banks said the agency had not replied to the letter.

However, the conference organizers, Forest Service managers and USDA officials all denied there was any topic-related censorship apparent in the conference travel restrictions. Association for Fire Ecology development director Tony Ingalsbee said his personal impression was that climate-related research was being muzzled, but later added the travel restrictions appeared to be indiscriminate.

Andy Stahl of the organization Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics raised a different point about the controversy. Conferences depend on participants to pay the cost of the gathering, and losing a significant number puts the event in its own budgetary squeeze.

“The whole notion of conferences is antiquated,” Stahl said. “I don’t have to leave the computer to interact with anybody I want. And when the major theme of the conference was going to be effects of climate change on wildfire, isn’t the single most damaging thing an individual can do is to jump in an airplane and fly across the country?”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.