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After the Exit

Former forest chief discusses Dombeck’s sudden departure

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Mike Dombeck didn’t wait for his new bosses to show him the door last week, when he resigned his post as head of the U.S. Forest Service. Dombeck had signaled he would be willing to work with the Bush administration if the policies pursued under the new president reflected a modicum of sympathy for the kinder, gentler, more ecologically minded Forest Service created under Clinton.

But the handwriting was on the wall for Dombeck, as Bush in recent weeks had rescinded a law that would have held mining companies more accountable for clean-up costs, rolled back allowable levels of arsenic in drinking water to the good old days of FDR, suspended the roadless initiative, and promised to explore public lands for a quick fix to the nation’s energy woes.

Everyone knew Dombeck was on his way out. The surprise was that he didn’t go quietly, writing an impassioned letter addressed to new Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, but intended for a wider audience, including the national press and the 33,000 employees of the Forest Service. In the letter, Dombeck urged the latter group to “follow their hearts,” and “never be controlled by those who equate a national forest solely to board feet or barrels of oil.”

“Above all,” Dombeck wrote, “allow your commitment to your conservation ethic and the lands and waters that sustain us to take precedence over other political or organizational fealties. ... Continue to advocate and teach the imperative of conservation and restoration.”

While it’s questionable whether all 33,000 Forest Service employees feel the same as Dombeck on conservation issues, his outgoing remarks highlighted what one former Forest Service chief says is the most difficult part of any public land managers’ job.

“These guys have been rode hard and put away wet,” notes former Forest Service chief and current University of Montana forestry professor Dr. Jack Ward Thomas, of his former colleagues in the Forest Service. “It’s been a rough transition for about 10 years, and Mike’s been doing a lot of rebuilding and boosting. That’s not a simple thing.”

He points out that while federal land managers ought to take the long view and implement strategies in 10-, 25-, 50-, or even 100-year cycles, such policies are often shifted with the election cycle every two to four years.

Yet Thomas isn’t buying any of the doomsday prophesies of the future of national forests under Bush. “There’s only so much a president or a chief can do in four years,” he says. “A lot of people forget that what’s happening now is due to some landmark court cases that happened in the ’80s, in the Reagan-Bush years, and that those decisions were based on laws that were passed in the ’70s in the Nixon administration. I’m talking now about the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act.”

Thomas also notes that the reality of conditions in national forests will be dictating policy over the long term more reliably than whichever party currently holds power.

“The fire conditions we saw last summer are likely to persist over the next several decades,” predicts Thomas. “They are the result of a fire policy that was pursued for the better part of a century. Now you can have an argument over who was responsible for that policy, but the fires will be with us for a while to come. The years that I was [chief of the Forest Service] were awful—in ’94, we lost 14 people, and the fire budget was miserable. There’s more money there now, which is good, because it will be needed.”

Thomas also predicts that Bush will have little luck in reversing the changes the Forest Service has undergone in the past decade.

“You’ve got a 50-50 split in the Senate, close to the same in the House, and the law is pretty constraining, it’s not likely to change, at least not soon,” says Thomas. “About the worst thing Bush could do for his cause is issue some executive decision for which there will be some major backlash, like trying to overturn the roadless initiative. That would galvanize the environmental community in ways they haven’t been in years.”

These days, Thomas’ experience benefits UM forestry students, some of whom are already Forest Service employees and may well be making difficult choices for the nation’s largest land management agency. David Wickwire, a graduate UM forestry student and full-time Forest Service employee, was heartened by Dombeck’s speech, but noted most of his colleagues are unaffected by the person at the helm of their agency.

“It would be interesting to see how many of us really knew who Dombeck was or what his feelings are on conservation,” he says. “Personally, I thought his comments were a nice legacy to leave his employees. I like the idea that the Forest Service should be conservation-minded organization.”

Both Thomas as a past chief, and Wickwire as a future career Forest Service manager, hope Dombeck’s replacement comes from within the ranks of the Forest Service. “It’s important for people on the ground to feel that the person in charge is at least familiar with the culture of the Forest Service,” Wickwire says.

“With an agency like the Forest Service,” as Thomas puts it, “you can’t do too badly by hiring within the ranks.”

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