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Government Scientist Blocked from Talking About Climate and Wildfires

Critics are accusing the Trump administration of stifling the dissemination of taxpayer-funded science

A U.S. Forest Service scientist who was scheduled to talk about the role that climate change plays in wildfire conditions was denied approval to attend the conference featuring fire experts from around the country.

William Jolly, a research ecologist with the agency's Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Mont., was supposed to give a 30-minute presentation titled "Climate-Induced Variations in Global Severe Fire Weather Conditions" at the International Fire Congress in Orlando, Fla., next month. The event is hosted by the Association for Fire Ecology (AFE).

The travel denial follows reports last week that U.S. EPA blocked three scientists from making presentations at a conference in Rhode Island featuring climate change. Critics accused the Trump administration of stifling the dissemination of taxpayer-funded science.

The Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service's parent agency, said regional managers largely decide who gets to go to conferences based in part on the financial resources that are available. Political appointees in Washington have the final say but do not typically weigh in on which individuals are selected.

"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," said spokesman Mike Illenberg in a statement. "Based on their recommendations and resource availability, Forest Service leadership gives final approval."

Jolly's presentation was slated to be part of a special session exploring the connection between wildfire and climate change. It focuses on what scientists can learn about fire behavior in a warming future by looking at clues from the past, according to Anthony Westerling, a professor at the University of California who is moderating the session.

"It's kind of weird that they would make it hard for a government scientist to take part in this because managing wildfire is a huge challenge logistically and financially on a vast array of federal lands," he said. "These scientists, by participating in these kinds of society meetings, share their thoughts and hear other people's thoughts, which is important because their work is supposed to form how these lands are managed and how we prepare for and adapt under climate change."

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