A modest chief moved the Forest Service miles down the road

  • Mike Dombeck

    Tom Bauer

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

In March, Mike Dombeck resigned as chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Dombeck grew up on Wisconsin’s Chequamegon National Forest and spent years working for the Bureau of Land Management before leading the Forest Service for four years under President Clinton.

While the Forest Service didn’t turn on a dime under his leadership, it certainly moved. Dombeck emphasized ecosystem management, recreation and watersheds. He pushed to eliminate old logging roads, not to build new ones. He initiated a nationwide consensus on protecting all roadless forests from development. He also proposed protecting all ancient trees — forever.

HCN editor Betsy Marston interviewed Dombeck for Radio High Country News. Following is an excerpted version of the conversation. The full interview can be heard on the Web at www.hcn.org/radio.

BETSY MARSTON: Well, Mike Dombeck, your legacy to the Forest Service … Can you put it in a few words or sentences?

MIKE DOMBECK: If I tried to bring anything to the Forest Service and the national forests, it was an increasing awareness of the value of water, and what water does for us as a society. The cleanest water in the country is flowing off our forested landscapes, and our challenge and opportunity is to keep it that way.

You know, when the watersheds are functioning, we all benefit. The logger benefits, the rancher benefits, someone in the urban community benefits. You’ve got a healthier landscape. We have a bulwark against the invasive species problem. We’ve got recreation opportunities. It’s really in the long-term best interest of society to focus on watershed health.

MARSTON: What are the greatest threats to watersheds?

DOMBECK: I would say above and beyond all others is probably roads. Roads well maintained are necessary and important. But when roads go unmaintained, we’re dealing with landslides, we’re dealing with washouts, we’re dealing with sedimentation issues, we’re dealing with water-quality issues, we’re dealing with degradation of spawning habitat of salmon, of trout, of other species. It’s an infrastructure that badly needs to be repaired and taken care of.

MARSTON: Well, the roadless initiative did just that. You mounted a nationwide look at roads, and people said we should protect roadless areas. But one of the first things the Bush team did was to delay the roadless initiative. Could that get rolled back?

DOMBECK: Well, that remains to be seen. We’ve laid out the process, a totally open public process in developing the roads policies: 1.6 million comments, 600 public meetings. In my entire career, this is the most extensive outreach of any policy that I’ve observed.

There is so much work to be done on the land, in the forest. What we really need to do is to move the silvicultural management machinery — the active management — away from the controversies of the roadless (areas), away from the old-growth stands.

The wonderful thing that came out of a horrific fire season last year is the fact that Congress funded us with our highest funding increase in the history of the Forest Service, to deal with issues like fire management, the urban-wildland interface … it’s where the people are, where the development has occurred, backed up to many of our forested landscapes.

MARSTON: As you say, Congress has approved spending over a billion dollars to thin forests. Do you fear this could turn into a traditional logging mandate?

DOMBECK: I think if it does, we’re probably headed for trouble. I think we saw the results of the salvage rider after the 1994 fire season, and it basically ended up in gridlock and controversy.

The objective is not logging and commercial timber harvest. This is about restoration of forests and watersheds and improving forest health and protecting communities. And one of the byproducts will be fiber, one of the byproducts will be cleaner water, one of the byproducts will be local jobs. (Former Forest Service Chief) Jack Ward Thomas used to say, if you take care of the goose that lays the golden egg, you’re going to have a perpetual supply of golden eggs.

MARSTON: Logging has decreased dramatically throughout the national forests. Is it going too far to say that logging is pretty much going to be dead?

DOMBECK: I’ve never been a supporter of zero cut. I’m a supporter of active management. In fact, right now we have 4.5 billion board-feet of timber under contract from the national forests. Now that’s down significantly from the ’80s, but I’ve got to point out that the biggest decline in timber harvest occurred before 1992. It went from about 12 billion to about 4 billion, as a result of litigation and gridlock.

MARSTON: Mike, what drove you to try to reform the Forest Service, and is that a correct way to characterize what you did?

DOMBECK: I wouldn’t call it reform at all. I would call it really a gradual unfolding. Society changes over time, and the values of people change over time.

If we ask ourselves what will the value of forests be in 20 years and 50 years from now, we see urban sprawl, we see development, we see less public access on private lands, more and more private lands posted. We see higher recreation use on national forests. We see increased water demands. We’ve got to keep up with these changes.

My feeling is this: The Forest Service has been heading in this direction for a long time. Other chiefs have made the mandates of ecosystem management, and I think what I tried to do was take it several steps forward.

MARSTON: But in the last decade, what drove a lot of change in the Forest Service seemed to come more from the outside. The Endangered Species Act, environmental activists pressing lawsuits. Isn’t that what kept the pressure on you and the rest of the agency to change?

DOMBECK: There certainly are external pressures and I would take it even a step farther on back (to the) Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act. This was really Congress’ response to the desires of the American people back in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s to the credit of these people, to Congress and others, that moved on these pieces of legislation, because in spite of the grousing that we hear about some of the environmental legislation, everybody’s got to admit that the water is cleaner as a result of it.

But I just gotta tell you, the tremendous fire season that we had last year, that I think … it helped the American public, and particularly people in the West, see what the Forest Service does for them.

You don’t know how gratifying it is to go around the country and see (signs that say) "Thank you, firefighters," "God bless our firefighters" … In Hamilton, Mont., on firefighter appreciation day, (I) got a standing ovation, and it wasn’t because my name is Mike Dombeck. It was because of what many, many thousands of firefighters do for these communities. It is so humbling to be part of an organization like this.