Commanding the great, green empire of the Rocky Mountains' northern forest

New Regional Forester Dale Bosworth struggles to juggle competing philosophies in trying times

At Dale Bosworth's first press conference upon arriving in Missoula last fall, he pleaded ignorant to many of the local journalists' questions, saying he needed time to get used to his new job.

Now, four months after taking over responsibility for the U.S. Forest Service's Northern Region, Bosworth is more comfortable answering questions. As regional forester, he oversees a jurisdiction of 25 million acres that sweeps from northern Idaho, across all of Montana and into parts of North and South Dakota.

Bosworth inherited from his predecessor, Hal Salwasser, a region that is socially diverse, varied and rich in resources, wildlife and just plain wildness. It's an area that encompasses a dozen national forests, four national grasslands, 16 designated wilderness areas, six wild and scenic rivers, and five million acres of roadless backcountry. The region is home to nine threatened or endangered species, including the gray wolf, bald eagle, grizzly bear, whooping crane, and Chinook salmon.

The numbers speak to the magnitude of Bosworth's responsibility. Public land in the Northern Region provides forage for 203,000 cattle, 4,000 horses and 29,000 sheep. An estimated eight to nine million game fish live in the waters of 31,000 miles of streams.

In 1996, national forest lands now under Bosworth's oversight produced $79.6 million in minerals, 5.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas, 3.7 barrels of oil and 395 million board feet of lumber and paid more $20 million to local counties.

It's also a region that is seeped in controversy and experiencing some jarring transitions: from the reintroduction of grizzlies into the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem, to the shutting down of the Rocky Mountain Front range to oil and gas leasing, to the current debate over logging roadless areas, and the layoff of nearly 400 government employees across the region because of budget cuts. At the same time, the Forest Service is attempting to redefine a conservation and environmental ethic that many would argue it lost long ago.

In short, Bosworth has been put into the position of juggling a slue of dicey situations that could influence the environmental debate on a national level for years to come. And so last week, Bosworth sat down with the Independent to discuss some of the knotty issues that he's trying to untangle.

Independent: It seems like the Forest Service has been going through some significant changes, perhaps even doing some bureaucratic soul-searching. Timber harvests are down in the '90s. There's also been a lot of talk about how the land is left after it has been logged and logging's impacts on fish and wildlife. Do you think that the talk is sincere or is it just lip service?

Bosworth Bosworth: Well, there has been a lot of bureaucratic soul-searching in this organization for the past two years, maybe longer, and it has been going through a transition. If you look at the change from one day to the next in the Forest Service you would say, "Well there's not much change." But if you look at the change in this organization compared to 15 years ago, it's a pretty significant difference in our whole make-up. The kind of skills we have, the kind of things we look at.

A lot of our energy still goes into the timber program. That part is probably still true you know, but even that is still changing. Right now, if you look at this region, we're probably selling about 300, 350 million board feet or more of timber a year. Compared to 15 years ago, when we were selling over a billion a year, so it's a 45 percent decrease.

There has been a lot of talk lately about how many local economies are moving away from the dependence they once had on the extractive industries. Recreation and tourism are now becoming the basis on which many local communities survive. The transformation can be seen quite dramatically in many places in Montana and Idaho. What do you see as the role of the Forest Service in the midst of such changes?

I agree in part with your premise there, but there are still a fair number of smaller rural communities depending on industry. There is more tourism and recreation, but in some of those places they're still having a real tough time trying to make the transformation.

It depends on where you're at. If you're in Missoula or in Kalispell or Hamilton, you can see the difference in terms of how recreation and tourism has had an effect. But maybe Eureka or maybe Libby to some extent, they're still struggling in terms of economic development.

A lot of people believe that the Forest Service has a direct responsibility to maintain viable communities or community stability, but we don't -- at least not a legal responsibility.

So you don't think that the Forest Service should help rural communities by trying to increase the recreational opportunities?

What we are doing is that we're trying to help communities build their recreation, use the national forest recreation opportunities to try to help these communities in terms of the economics.

Bosworth There's a lot of things we do and can do and should do to try to help them. We ought to be good neighbors; we ought to be able to help facilitate increases in recreation or other kinds of uses. There are things we can do, like watchable wildlife programs, that actually make a big difference in terms of some of the recreation opportunities that help communities.

But we're not going to be able to maintain a certain level of timber harvest and extraction use just simply for the purpose of community stability or community vitality. Even when you get into recreation, there are certain limits on what the land can have them do as far as recreation is concerned.

What impact do you think that the moratorium on building new roads will have on the region?

Overall, I don't think the impacts are huge from the moratorium. It's only for 18 months. We weren't going in and building a lot of roads in roadless areas anyway.

I think that what the moratorium is going to do is give us some opportunities and time to start trying to develop a more rational policy for road management.

There is so much fighting over whether we ought to be entering wilderness areas or not that we're forgetting about the management of the national forests and forest health. We're not looking at it in a broader scale because everybody's fighting over the details. As least this will give us some time to back off a little bit, to try to formulate some kind of policy that's a little more rational.

Just before you came to the Northern Region, Lewis and Clark Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora decided to close down the Rocky Mountain Front Range to oil and gas leasing.

I was sort of paying attention to that because I knew that I was coming here, and I was very comfortable with the decision. One thing when you're talking about gas and oil -- it's not going to disappear. It's not going to rot if you don't get it out now. It's going to be there 20 years from now.

At the same time, in the Helena National Forest there was a plan to protect much of the Alice Creek drainage near the Front Range as vital grizzly habitat. Yet Helena Forest supervisor Tom Clifford repealed the plan and opened up a portion of the drainage to drilling to avoid litigation from Chevron. Do you see a sort of contradiction between the two decisions?

I wouldn't say that the decision that Gloria made on the Front Range is necessarily the same decision that should be made everywhere on oil and gas. We need to look at the social, economic and environmental issues there. Once you wade through all of that stuff where she came out was the right decision for the Front Range.

What's your opinion of the grizzly reintroduction plan in the Selway-Bitterroot?

I really support the whole notion of grizzly bear recovery. There's no question in my mind about that. It makes sense to reintroduce bears to the Selway-Bitterroot -- it would be a stronger assurance that we're going to have sustainable populations of grizzly bear.

Bosworth But we ought to have public support, particularly local community support for those kinds of things. I really like the idea of citizen management group that's been proposed for the Selway-Bitterroot.

To me the real question comes in timing. When is the best time? Does it need to be done right now? Would a year or two years or 10 years from now be better? When's the best time to do it? What does it take to get that community support? I'd feel more comfortable with it if we showed some successes by being able to de-list the grizzly bear in Yellowstone for example, and be able to demonstrate to the public that we've increased the number of bears in Yellowstone significantly.

Perhaps the most controversial problem in the region is with the Yellowstone bison. Because of conflicts with grazing leases on Forest Service land right outside of the park, the Forest Service has a role in the problem. What's your take on that?

Well, I'm not really tuned in as much as I probably ought to be on the whole bison issue. There have been some processes put in place to deal with the issue this year, but I'm not really up to speed.

I do think we have a role and I think we should be working with the park service and with the state. I just don't know how far that role goes. We're not the ones calling the shots on this.

One of the most persistent criticisms from environmental groups of the Forest Service is that the service has a restoration mind set–where the agency just goes out and gets the cut, no matter how much damage is done to the land because it can always be restored later. Do you think that's fair?

No. I don't agree with that. To me it's sort of like two different philosophies. There's sort of a belief out there we can't improve on Mother Nature. Let Mother Nature take its course, and that's the best solution for anything that has to do with national forests or with the environment. Then there's a whole other side that says, "Well if Man can intercede and have an effect in a positive way, then that's better than always letting Mother Nature take its own course."

And that's sort of the difference, the basic philosophical difference. I'd say the Forest Service would probably have more of a bias toward managing the land in a way that provides public benefits rather than just allowing nature takes its course.

So when people say that we have a restoration mind set, I don't think that's as much the case as that there are sort of two different philosophies. I believe that we can do certain things to the land and provide some benefits to people, and the land will be healthy.

I don't agree with the idea that we should just log and restore later. If we're going to log, it ought to be part of the restoration process itself. There's a lot of land that we kept fire out of for so many years that I don't think letting a wildfire, letting Mother Nature just do her thing there, is the right thing to do now. There are certain things we need to do to get fire back in to the system. That takes some management.

Do you think the Forest Service should be taking a more active role in forest restoration?

I think we need to take a lot more active role, a more aggressive role in restoration, and part of that has to do with budgets. But part of the problem is that whatever we decide to do, part of the people are going to like it and part of the people aren't going to like it. So much energy is tied up in legal paperwork. There's a lot that needs to be done out on the ground, and I believe that work, in the end, is work that people are going to appreciate.


Bosworth says the Forest Service can no longer think in terms of logging first and restoring later. (File Photo)


When Bosworth moved to Missoula last fall, he stepped into one of the region's most controversial jobs. Photo by Jeff Powers.


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