Old guard may beat new chief


JACKSON, Wyo. - A retired U.S. Forest Service supervisor urged agency personnel to move swiftly to transform an organization that has historically resisted change.

Tom Kovalicky, who began his Forest Service career in Wyoming, said that Jack Ward Thomas, the controversial new Forest Service chief, "wants to change bad practices," but may already be in danger of being reined in.

"A window of change was opened by the selection of Jack Ward Thomas," Kovalicky said at a conference on ecosystem management which drew 200 Forest Service employees. "But you'd better hurry up and crawl through that window because it's starting to close already."

The forces threatening Thomas are the entrenched career Forest Service managers who have always "put their career first and the resources last," Thomas said.

"Tell the truth and don't change your professional opinion to satisfy your supervisor," Kovalicky said. "You don't need to be someone's lackey anymore. It's up to you to tell the truth and obey the law."

Kovalicky called for decentralization of agency power and a return to "decisions being made around the campfire."

Real power has been drawn to a "higher level," he said, because of the centralizing effect of computerized information systems.

Meaningful leadership at all levels of the agency has deteriorated in the past decade, Kovalicky said, again encouraging field personnel to move into the leadership vacuum.

"Don't wait for explicit permission to enact change," he said. "Your leaders aren't going to put up maypoles and dance around them shouting, "Change, change, change." "

Kovalicky, now an environmental consultant living near Lewiston, Idaho, got an enthusiastic response from Forest Service employees.

His remarks drew fire, however, from Steve Mealey, Boise National Forest supervisor, and former supervisor of the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming.

Mealey said that Kovalicky had delivered a "confrontational message" in counseling agency personnel to "charge ahead and get something done."

"If that's what he said, he's wrong," Mealey said. "The right answer is teamwork."

Mealey said he believes the Forest Service has already "gone through a huge change, both culturally and politically."

Kovalicky was also asked about adverse reaction to the Clinton administration's rangeland reform proposal.

Ranchers in Wyoming have complained that the regulations are cumbersome and inappropriately involve members of the general public in making decisions traditionally made by ranchers.

"That's the price of playing the game," Kovalicky responded.

"If they don't want to pay the price they should get out of the game. Naturally, they're upset. For 65 years no one has bugged them, and now they're telling them to be a good steward."

The writer works for the Casper Star-Tribune in Rock Springs, Wyoming.