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Steve Hinnefeld
IU Communications

Last modified: Thursday, December 13, 2012

IU professorís book examines stream restoration and the politics of expertise

Dec. 13, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Dave Rosgen looks, dresses and talks like a cowboy, has little formal training and enjoys a knack for angering academic critics. Yet his Natural Channel Design system has become far and away the dominant approach to stream restoration in the United States.

How did this happen? And what does it say about the way scientific knowledge is produced and disseminated in the 21st century? Rebecca Lave, an assistant professor of geography in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University, examines those questions and more in a new book.

"Fields and Streams: Stream Restoration, Neoliberalism, and the Future of Environmental Science," published by University of Georgia Press, wades deeply into the "Rosgen Wars," the dispute between Rosgen and his university and agency-based critics that has raged for two decades.

"It's a huge controversy," Lave said. "Rosgen's approach is ubiquitous in the United States. Everybody knows it, everybody can use it, despite the fact that universities won't teach it."

In addition to analyzing claims and counterclaims about the validity of Rosgen's work, Lave ties his rise to the increasing influence of neoliberalism, an economic philosophy that relies on market forces to produce and give value to knowledge and expertise. In higher education, she writes, the market-based approach is evident in reductions in public funding, an increased emphasis on commercializing research findings and a shift from basic to applied research.

She considers stream restoration from the perspectives of political ecology and science and technology studies. She ties them together using an intellectual framework from Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist who wrote about the ways in which cultural and symbolic capital determine the arrangement of power in structured social spaces that he called fields.

Rosgen is a former U.S. Forest Service hydrologist who left the agency in the 1980s. Working as a private consultant, he developed Natural Channel Design, a system for stream classification and an approach to restoration that uses the placement of natural materials such as tree trunks and boulders to stabilize stream channels and restore the streams to health.

He has trained thousands of adherents by teaching short courses. And Natural Channel Design has been embraced not only by restoration practitioners but by government agencies, including the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Federal laws that require stream restoration as a trade-off for construction and development catalyzed a growing market.

All the while, Rosgen's critics have denounced him as a charlatan and a crank. They warn that his overly simplistic approach will cause serious environmental damage, especially when practiced by those who take a course, buy a book and decide they know enough to restore a stream.

Lave carefully examines both the criticisms and the defenses of Rosgen and finds that, on both sides, some claims have merit and others don't. Yet the critics and defenders have made the same arguments since the 1990s, she says, unswayed by evidence to the contrary.

She contends that critics have lost the battle and taking potshots at Rosgen doesn't accomplish much. Instead, she argues that restoration practitioners can be effective if they use Natural Channel Design but adapt it to local stream conditions and layer other techniques on top. This is already happening, she said, in states like North Carolina, which was early to adopt Rosgen's work.

Lave also concludes that there could be a silver lining to the growing role of market forces in producing knowledge. A weakening of the academy's monopoly on expertise, she said, could open the way for citizens and social-justice advocates to play a larger role in determining what knowledge is legitimate.

To speak with Lave, contact Steve Hinnefeld at Indiana University Communications, 812-856-3488 or