The final session of the eight-week Wildland Fire Studies seminar, provided by Cal Poly’s forestry resources department, led to some controversy Monday over free speech rights and expression on campus.
The seminar was primarily geared toward students with a concentration in wildland fire and fuels management. Monday’s session was led by Dale Bosworth, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, on the topic of the future of managing fire in America’s wildlands.
Students from the Progressive Student Alliance (PSA), Environmental Council and Poly Greens planned to distribute flyers at the door expressing concerns about the Healthy Forests Initiative proposed by the Bush administration that includes fighting wildland fires.
The students involved in PSA said that the initiative uses the fear of forest fires to “eliminate environmental protection and boost commercial logging,” which PSA strongly opposes.
The students from these organizations claim that they received an e-mail from the coordinator for the seminar, Chris Dicus, notifying them that they would be asked to leave the session if they came to protest. The e-mail was also sent to the police.
“We decided as a group that we couldn’t be intimidated by the letter sent to us,” said Abbie Livingston, co-director of the PSA and history senior.
However, Dicus, a Cal Poly natural resources management professor, disagreed.
“That’s not true,” Dicus said, when asked about the letter. He said that there was some concern over a protest and that students were asked to be “professional and courteous.”
The student organizations were present at the session and were allowed to hand out flyers and attend the seminar without incident.
“You get that when you open it up to the public,” Dicus said. “There was no problem there.”
Some of the groups that had planned to attend the seminar backed out after the e-mail was sent, said David Kirk, co-director of Poly Greens and social science junior.
“I don’t think a teacher has the right to threaten students like that,” Kirk said.
However, the students who were present at the seminar felt that their presence was important to the issue.
“It was important for us to be there for our right of free speech,” Livingston said. “We couldn’t just roll over.”
Group members were uncertain about what to expect and thought that there may have been a police presence at the seminar. However, there were no police.
“There was much less resistance than expressed in the e-mail,” Livingston said. “I’m very grateful for that.”
The group members attended the seminar, along with the 65 other students enrolled in the FNR 470B (special topics) class as well as more than 50 people from the general public.
This was the first year that the natural resources management department at Cal Poly had offered a class of this kind.
Dicus and Neil Sugihara, both members of the board of directors for fire ecology in California planned the seminar.
“It turned out to be a fantastic series,” Dicus said. “I think it really opened up the students’ eyes to how wide and broad the field is.”
The class included eight sessions that took place each Monday from noon to 1 p.m. Students were then required to respond to the speakers for class credit.
“It was a dynamite line-up,” Dicus said of the eight speakers. “It was sort of our dream team.”
The series culminated with Bosworth, who gave a speech on the future of wildland fire prevention and then opened up the floor for discussion.
“There were some tough questions asked,” Dicus said of the question-and-answer session.
Students from the Progressive Student Alliance, the FNR 470B class, and the general public all asked questions pertaining to the controversial ways of preventing wildfires.
“The chief answered them well,” Dicus said. “He’s not one to shy away from tough questions.”