MISSOULA, Mont. - Dale Bosworth, newly appointed chief of the U.S. Forest Service, listens so intently to others that beads of sweat form on his forehead. At least that's how some of his fellow workers jokingly sum up the character of their new boss.
Bosworth, 57, the agency's 15th chief, took the reins in early April. He succeeds Mike Dombeck, a Clinton administration hire, who resigned in March before the Bush administration could fire him (see story page 12).
Bosworth, an agency lifer, has worked for most of the past 35 years in national forests across the West, including stints as regional forester for the Intermountain Region, based in Ogden, Utah, and for the Northern Region in Missoula. He has a forestry degree from the University of Idaho and is the son of a former forest supervisor.
Before the announcement, environmentalists were braced for bad news: Possible picks for chief included a former timber-industry lobbyist, and President Bush has already put on hold Clinton's executive order to protect roadless forests (HCN, 2/12/01: The power of love, and its opposite). Bush may also try to negate a 20-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling along Montana's Rocky Mountain Front instigated by former Lewis and Clark Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora (HCN, 10/13/97: Forest Service acts to preserve 'the Front').
But many greens have joined timber industry leaders and agency staffers in describing Bosworth as well-qualified and likable. "Dale is the consummate professional," says Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. "The administration chose him, not because he is ideologically in lockstep with the White House, but because he is a well-respected forester and administrator who is likely to have the support of his deputies."
"We were happy to see the Department of Agriculture choose a career forester," agrees Stefany Bales of the Intermountain Forest Association, a trade group for sawmills and private-forest owners.
Others are less optimistic. Listening to people doesn't necessarily make a good steward of the nation's public forests, warns Rick Stern of the Rock Creek Alliance in Missoula. The alliance has been trying for years to get Bosworth to quash plans for a proposed mine that would tunnel under the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness in northwest Montana.
"He doesn't have a big history of sticking his neck out on behalf of environmental causes," Stern says.
Bosworth knows intimately many of the Forest Service's most heated controversies. For two years, he chaired the Interagency Grizzly Bear Recovery Committee, which is considering reintroducing grizzly bears to Idaho. Last June, he sat through a series of public meetings on Clinton's roadless initiative, listening to passionate pleas from both conservationists and loggers. Last summer he oversaw the worst fire season in the Northern Rockies in 90 years.
His approach to controversy has been straightforward.
"Look at the whole (roadless) proposal," he beseeched a gathering of thousands of loggers and their families in June 2000. "It is a fairly common-sense approach. It still allows commercial logging. It still allows motorized access. And it leaves the hard decisions to the local level, where they belong. But if you think it's a bunch of garbage, then tell us it's a bunch of garbage."
As regional forester, Bosworth seemed to embrace the growing field of ecosystem management. At the same time, he has remained adamant that timber will continue to roll to the sawmills, albeit not the way it used to - either in volume, or in the way it is harvested.
"I don't want to say producing timber is bad, but the Forest Service is focused on ecosystem restoration," he told HCN shortly before his appointment as chief. "Wood products will continue to come off the national forests, but from projects like thinning from below, restoring aspen groves, and enhancing wildlife habitat."
Bosworth also echoed some of the same concerns many of his colleagues have about environmental regulations. ÒMy frustration stems from the fact that the high requirement for environmental analysis takes huge amounts of time and money, but doesn't commensurately improve the decision-making process," he said. "For the amount of time and money it takes, I think it's out of whack."
Nonetheless, Cindy Swanson, director of watershed, wildlife, fish and rare plants in the Northern Region, says Bosworth always backed scientific proposals to protect endangered animals such as the Canada lynx and bull trout. "Dale has been proactive on conservation strategies," she says. "He's very good at being a holistic manager. He makes sure all the pieces of the ecosystem work together. He hasn't made a decision that I haven't supported and agreed with."
Can he hold his ground?
Still, Bosworth has disappointed some environmentalists, especially when it comes to restricting off-road-vehicle use. "His ORV policy has been a disappointment," says Jennifer Ferenstein, a national board member of the Sierra Club. Bosworth never set a regional ORV policy, and some Northern forests still give off-roaders free rein, she says.
Others say Bosworth may not stand firm if his bosses pressure him to mandate unpopular policies. "The administration sets the table, and I don't expect Dale to object or refuse to carry out administration orders," says Michael Bader of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. "I think he will be a facilitator for implementing the Bush agenda."
But others, both timber industry advocates and environmentalists, hope he can lead the administration in the right direction - that is, in their direction.
"It would be wonderful if he goes in with a proactive agenda, putting an emphasis on forest restoration work, putting local people to work and protecting watersheds and long-term sustainability," environmentalist Ferenstein says.
"He must step up at some point and lead," echoes industry advocate Bales. "Dale understands the forest-health and fire-risk issues. We hope he will push those issues to the top of the Forest Service priority list."
Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana.
YOU CAN CONTACT...
- Jennifer Ferenstein with the Sierra Club, 406/543-0079;
- Michael Bader with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, 406/721-5420;
- Stefany Bales with the Intermountain Forest Association, 208/667-4641.
Copyright © 2001 HCN and Mark Matthews