Forest Service seeks a new (roadless) road to the future

  • USFS Chief Mike Dombeck and Interior Sec'y Bruce Babbitt

    Rick Keister photo
  • Helen Chenoweth

  • Frank Murkowski

  • Larry Craig

  • Don Young

  • Former chief Jack Ward Thomas

    Steve Stuebner photo
  • Cartoon: Loggers cutting trees

    Greenberg/Seattle Post Intelligencer

Note: see end of this feature story for a list of four accompanying sidebar articles.

In his first major appearance as the 14th chief of the nation's Forest Service, Mike Dombeck was summoned the winter of 1997 before the House Agriculture Committee to testify about a "forest health" bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Smith, the powerful Republican committee chairman from rural Oregon.

Declaring that only salvage logging could prevent an outbreak of wildfires in the West, Smith repeatedly urged Dombeck, who had taken office on Jan. 6, 1997, to endorse the timber-driven measure. It was the kind of step Dombeck's predecessors had taken early in their tenures - a ritualized affirmation of "business-as-usual" to the congressmen who control the Forest Service's budget.

When Dombeck refused to deliver this pledge, it indicated publicly that the Forest Service just might be poised to move in another direction. That possibility became more real when Smith's logging bill met a startling rebuke in the Republican-controlled Congress a year after Dombeck had also rejected it. For the first time in decades, it appeared that a reform-minded chief might have a little bit of political running room.

Looking back during a recent interview, Dombeck said his intention to redirect the Forest Service did not start in Smith's hearing room. Instead, it took shape a year ago, at a symposium sponsored by Trout Unlimited, when Dombeck met the great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt. It was Teddy Roosevelt, working with Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, who began the agency whose forests now sprawl over 192 million acres divided into 155 different forests and grasslands.

Dombeck had a question ready last year for Teddy Roosevelt IV: "What would your great-grandfather do today?"

Roosevelt, a capitalist and conservationist like his forebear, had an answer ready: "My great-grandfather would return to the idea of hiring natural-resource professionals, instead of politicians, to take care of public land."

Back to basics

Managing forests in sustainable ways and caring for forest watersheds - those were the neglected origins Dombeck reached back to when, a year after taking office, he laid out the agency's new mission. On Jan. 22, 1998, he told the 30,000 employees: "This agenda will help us engage in one of the noblest, most important callings of our generation ... bringing people together and helping them find ways to live within the limits of the land."

That was the rhetoric, or vision, as you prefer. Then Dombeck restated a bombshell he had dropped a few months earlier: A "time-out" was needed to shift priorities, he said, and that would be accomplished through an 18-month moratorium on new road construction in most national forests.

The announcement set off a firestorm, which, three months later, Dombeck has apparently survived. The public comment period on the proposed moratorium ended March 30; the agency received an astounding 45,000 comments, with preliminary estimates indicating 70 percent approval. Now the moratorium can be put in place by the Forest Service, and without the approval of Congress.

Dombeck's approach, to steer the Forest Service to its future by invoking the founding mandates conceived by Roosevelt and Pinchot, is an attempt to save an agency deep in decline, plagued by spiraling morale, paralyzing lawsuits from environmental activists and property-rights advocates, suppression of scientific research and the collapse of public confidence. For some, the Forest Service has become a symbol of what's wrong with big government.

Politically, the Forest Service is besieged by Western Republicans, who threaten to slash the agency budget if Dombeck doesn't commit to more logging. Four Republican committee chairmen in Congress, including Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, told Dombeck on Feb. 20, a month after he announced his moratorium, that a "downsizing" of the Forest Service was due.

"Since you seem bent on producing fewer and fewer results from the national forests at rapidly increasing costs," they told Dombeck, "many will press Congress to seriously consider the option to simply move to custodial management of our national forests in order to stem the flow of unjustifiable investments."

Chenoweth's allies included Alaska Sens. Frank Murkowski and Don Young and Idaho Sen. Larry Craig.

In addition to the threat from Congress, Dombeck faces a more serious challenge. He must win over the Forest Service itself, a decentralized outfit whose top staff in the field wield considerable autonomous power. Observers guess the agency is more or less split between an old guard faithful to timber and cattle interests, and a newer, if not new, guard that may be more open to change.

There is nothing straightforward about this split. The old guard tends to be loyal both to producing outputs and to the office of the chief. The newer guard, the biologists and other so-called o-ologists, tend to be loyal to their disciplines rather than to the chief.

In his speech to staffers, whom he must win over if his mission is to succeed, Dombeck pointed to the Forest Service's original purpose of sustainably managing both a timber base and watersheds, which fish, wildlife and 900 municipalities depend on for clean water. A moratorium on building new roads, he said, will help ailing fisheries in the West, particularly the Northwest, where erosion due mainly to road-building has destroyed numerous runs of salmon and trout.

His talk echoed testimony he had given very early in his tenure, on Feb. 25, 1997, to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. He said then that the national forests must deliver wood fiber, forage, minerals and energy. But "the health of the land must be our first priority. Failing this, nothing else we do really matters."

Dombeck, who has a doctorate in fisheries biology, told the Forest Service staff in January 1998 that he had two reasons for the moratorium: First, the Forest Service cannot maintain or even monitor its estimated 400,000 miles of roads. Second, the logging roads destroy habitat, and that leads to the listing of species under the Endangered Species Act. Roads also spread noxious weeds and can damage municipal watersheds (see story page 10).

"There are few more irreparable marks we can leave on the land than to build a road," he said.

The public may agree with Dombeck: In a recent poll by Celinda Lake for The Wilderness Society, 67 percent said they favor banning all logging and road-building in remaining roadless areas of the national forests.

According to one government estimate, the moratorium would temporarily halt timber sales totaling at least 100 million board-feet of timber in six of the nine forest regions.

The counterattack

Western Republicans sought to circumvent Dombeck's plan through forest health bills, with the leading initiative drafted by Oregon Republican Rep. Smith.

"Environmental laws have shut down logging in the Pacific Northwest. Please give us the opportunity to nurture and care for this resource," he implored House colleagues as the measure went up for a dramatic vote this spring. "To let it burn is a huge waste."

But Smith's plea for fire prevention and fiber production didn't play strongly even within his party. Republicans had already broken rank to radically slash congressional funding for the Forest Service road budget. GOP lawmakers from the East and Midwest had distanced themselves from what some called the Western "radicals."

Now New York Republican Rep. Sherwood Boehlert intervened by inserting language into Smith's bill that codified Dombeck's moratorium and nullified Smith's salvage logging in roadless areas. In the end, so far had the bill changed from Smith's original version, even Helen Chenoweth reluctantly voted against it, and Smith's bill failed 201-181.

The vote marked a historic turning point, says Melanie Griffin, the Sierra Club's national director of land programs, based in Washington, D.C.

"This was the first timber vote we have won this decade, and it has been a long, long while since we beat back a major timber-lobby bill," she said. "Much of the success was clearly due to the heightened visibility over roadless areas, and it wouldn't have happened without Mike Dombeck."

Despite that endorsement, Dombeck's standing among environmentalists is mixed. John Gatchell with the Montana Wilderness Association gives Dombeck kudos for taking "a historic stand" against more publicly funded road-building that benefits loggers.

But Steve Holmer, who heads the Western Ancient Forest Campaign in the capitol, wonders if Dombeck can do as well with his far-flung employees as he has done with Congress.

"So far, the rhetoric coming from the chief has been encouraging," Holmer said. "Unfortunately, we see the Forest Service continue to offer timber sales in Northwest roadless areas and municipal watersheds that Dombeck said loggers should stay clear of. As for the long-term question of his (Dombeck's) survival, we've heard a lot of bluster and threats from the pro-timber champions that they will seek retaliation," Holmer added. "Frankly, I don't think they have the votes. Their era of supremacy is starting to unravel."

Former timber-industry lobbyist Mark Rey, now a staff member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, sees the situation somewhat differently.

"Somebody, and I don't know who, is peddling the notion that Dombeck is some great visionary reformer, that he is separate from, and stands apart from, the previous chiefs," Rey says. "Frankly, I just don't see it."

If all Dombeck had done was talk about his vision, Rey might be on stronger ground. But the 18-month moratorium is a public stand no previous chief has ever taken. Nor does Dombeck appear to be a reformer who just happened to get lucky in the U.S. Congress on the Smith bill. He's a veteran administrator, having just come from three years running the 10,000-employee Bureau of Land Management, where he had a $1 billion budget and managed more land, at 270 million surface acres, than he is managing at the Forest Service. In addition, at the BLM he had managed much of the Forest Service's subsurface resources.

And Dombeck is not above influencing - some would say manipulating - public opinion. A copy of the Forest Service's new "communication plan" was leaked this winter. One component called for Dombeck to find a prominent wildfire burning this summer, and then use it to talk about watershed issues and to promote Vice President Al Gore's clean-water initiatives.

Western Republicans were angered, and Dombeck's supporters feared a counterattack. It may have come early this April, when Sen. Murkowski wrote a letter to the chief demanding that he and his key advisors turn over all interoffice memoranda, personal computer files and copies of incoming and outgoing mail. Agency insiders describe the inquiry as a fishing expedition to uncover evidence that Dombeck may have been a party to illegal lobbying with groups seeking agency reform.

Setting the stage for change

The stage for Dombeck's paradigm shift was set by his predecessor, Jack Ward Thomas, the respected biologist brought to Washington, D.C., in late 1993 to replace Chief F. Dale Robertson, who was fired by President Clinton.

Until Clinton ousted Robertson, the chief had always served until retirement, and had then hand-picked his successor from among the Forest Service ranks.

The controversial ousting was supposed to signal that rule by the so-called Iron Triangle, the cozy relationship among corporate timber interests, politicians and bureaucrats, was over. Thomas seemed the perfect reformer. His roots were in rural Oregon, his drawl was out of Texas, and his discipline wasn't trees or road-building, as with past chiefs, but biology. He had been one of the architects of Option 9, the court-ordered agenda for protecting spotted owl forests in the Northwest. A front page headline in High Country News for Dec. 13, 1993, caught the mood surrounding his appointment: "Jack Ward Thomas: Hail to the chief."

Yet his three-year tenure proved to be the shortest of any chief this century. He ended up as martyr rather than hero, and departed embittered.

His fate was a matter of timing and personality. Soon after he took over as chief, the Republicans took over the U.S. Congress, and a shell-shocked Clinton administration and Democratic congressmen ran for cover. Thomas was chief when it seemed the public lands might be sold off and the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws gutted. The action wasn't just within the Beltway. Rarely a month went past without a physical attack on Forest Service buildings or threats to the staff themselves. Violence stalked the West's public lands when they weren't "closed" by political fights.

Internally, the timber cut, which generated most of the agency's budget and supported most of its personnel, was in free fall. It dropped from about 12 billion board-feet in 1989 to 4 billion board-feet during Thomas's tenure. (See story page 12.) The Forest Service was crumbling from factors that didn't have much to do with Thomas, but which he seemed helpless to change or to shape, and agency employees lost heart.

A poll of 3,000 staffers in the early 1990s, conducted by Southern Illinois University, showed that morale was dismal. Another poll, this one at the end of Thomas' tenure, showed morale had become worse.

In the end, Thomas was not only attacked by Congress and criticized internally; he says he also felt betrayed by Democrats who had initially celebrated his appointment, and then failed to defend him at committee hearings controlled by timber-hungry Republicans. Thomas also points a finger at environmentalists who, he says, constantly hounded him for doing too little.

"They can be their own worst enemy," he notes of the groups who are now attacking Dombeck's roadless moratorium for not including more forest acreage in the Pacific Northwest and on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

"Several times during my career, they would approach me and say, "I can't believe the great job you did, Jack." Then the next day they would come in and try to cut my nuts off while saying, "Don't let it bother you."

"Well, it did bother me. It bothers anyone who is trying to engender honest stewardship. For many of the national environmental organizations," Thomas says, "it seems that what you do can never be enough, and with Dombeck they better realize this is as good as it gets."

Andy Stahl, who heads the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a nonprofit organization that has 12,000 members, including 500 active Forest Service employees, hopes Dombeck and his agency can learn from Thomas' mistakes.

"It is a victim's mentality," Stahl said. "Jack Ward Thomas pretty much captured it in his farewell speech. He blamed everybody except the Forest Service for its troubles: It was harangued by Congress, micromanaged by the administration, distrusted by the public.

"Most Forest Service employees are pointing the finger outward at the rest of the world rather than sharing responsibility for the agency's problems," Stahl continued. They are especially angry about lawsuits that paralyze proposed agency actions. "First they blame judges, then environmentalists and then what they call conflicting law. Never once do you hear them confessing that perhaps the Forest Service broke the law."

Support from the troops

The Jack Ward Thomas era is over. Violence has ended. Talk of selling off the public lands is muted. The West is reluctantly adjusting to the new timber level of 4 billion board-feet. And unless the Western Republicans succeed in gutting the agency's budget, the worst of the downsizing may be over.

The question now is: Can Dombeck rally his troops to his new vision? In the field, Dombeck is slowly attracting a cadre to carry the reforms forward. Eight respected forest supervisors, from the Beaverhead-Deerlodge in Montana, the Kaibab in Arizona, the Shasta-Trinity in California, the Bighorn in Wyoming, the Boise in Idaho, the Deschutes in Oregon and the Monongahela in West Virginia, wrote Dombeck a rousing letter of support, declaring: "Change is not without difficulties, but going back is not an option."

One of the first internal moves Dombeck made - a maneuver that Jack Ward Thomas fiercely resisted out of loyalty to his colleagues - was cleaning house of agency executives who figured in the Iron Triangle relationship. Laterally transferred or retired were three of five deputy chiefs, including Gray F. Reynolds, deputy chief of the national forest system; Jerry Sesco, head of research; and Mark Reimers, the deputy chief of programs and legislation who had worked closely with Northwest politicians.

Dombeck simultaneously hired two aides from the outside. One is Francis Pandolfi, the former chief executive officer at Times-Mirror magazines, a former executive vice president of CBS and the Forest Service's expert in fiscal management.

The second addition was Chris Wood, a PR whiz kid and colleague of Dombeck's at the Bureau of Land Management who is to the Forest Service what George Stephanopoulos was to the White House.

Sen. Craig reacted to the staff changes with fury. And the Forest Service old guard rallied to support those Dombeck had dismissed. Reimers was hired by former Forest Service Chief R. Max Peterson, who today is executive vice president of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. With Reimers at his side, Peterson, an engineer who oversaw the construction of thousands of miles of Forest Service logging roads at a cost of billions of dollars and an untold ecological toll, urged resistance to Dombeck's agenda.

Testifying before the House Resources Committee this winter, Peterson said that Dombeck has his priorities wrong. Instead of imposing a moratorium on road building, Peterson said, the Forest Service should be following its usual protocol of developing a management plan and then deciding the fate of a drainage.

But Jack Ward Thomas, who now teaches at the University of Montana, was horrified at Peterson's attack.

"I look at him (Dombeck) as my chief and when I can't agree with something he does, I keep my mouth shut. For those at the regional, forest and district level who may not like what Mike is doing, my advice is to change or die. He has a vision and deserves to be followed. If you can help the agency get there, fine. If you can't, then step aside."

An unlikely reformer

Hollywood would never cast Mike Dombeck as the savior of the Forest Service. He stands about five foot five and is easy to overlook in a gathering. When he has to speak to a large crowd, he admits to getting nervous. But while he lacks the panache of Pinchot or the bluff rural poise of a Thomas, he possesses qualities that may serve him well as he tries to save a demoralized agency.

Roger Kennedy, a former director of the National Park Service who interacted with Dombeck when Dombeck ran the Bureau of Land Management, sums him up this way: He "is not flamboyant or dramatic. He comes into the job without the least propensity for grandstanding. He goes about his business and takes public service seriously. This is a radical departure from the ego-driven, image-conscious climate in Washington."

Kennedy also said, "The admirable achievement of Mike Dombeck, it seems to me, is his completely fresh, spirited assessment of the Forest Service's responsibility to the general public."

Despite his growing reputation as an iconoclast, Dombeck doesn't see himself as a radical reformer so much as a conduit for the ecological principles of Aldo Leopold. Leopold wrote his seminal conservation treatise in Sand County a couple of hours down the road from Dombeck's boyhood home in rural Wisconsin. Dombeck was born the same year, 1948, that Leopold died while fighting a wildfire on a neighbor's farm.

"When I was a kid, we were at the tail end of the lumberjack era - the in-the-flesh Paul Bunyans who moved from job to job," said Dombeck, who saw the last gasp of his region's great old-growth white pine forest. As a teen and during summers over the next decade, he served as a fishing guide on northern Wisconsin lakes while earning degrees in aquatic biology, teaching school and rising through government service. He worked for the Forest Service for 12 years, before moving over to the Bureau of Land Management. In February 1994, he became acting director of the BLM after Jim Baca was let go. He served as acting director until his appointment as Chief of the Forest Service.

Today, in his Washington, D.C., office, Dombeck keeps a dog-eared copy of A Sand County Almanac. Although Leopold's vision of a land ethic is quoted by conservationists and wise-users alike, it is his reference to the evolution of healthy natural systems that best describes Dombeck's strategy for reviving the Forest Service.

"When a change occurs in one part of the circuit, many other parts must adjust themselves to it," Leopold wrote, making an unintended reference to the Forest Service bureaucracy which he joined four years after its founding in 1905.

"Change does not necessarily obstruct or divert the flow of energy; evolution is a long series of self-induced changes, the net result of which has been to elaborate the flow mechanism and to lengthen the circuit. Evolutionary changes, however, are unusually slow and local."

Just as Dombeck believes the Forest Service has strayed from its dual mission of providing a sustainable volume of timber and ensuring watershed protection, he knows that the decades of accumulated agency dysfunction cannot be cured overnight. Change in the Forest Service must begin at the local level, among the rank and file, instead of being dictated from a fiefdom in the Beltway, he says. He also believes communities near national forests should be partners in grassroots stewardship rather than natural-resource dependents.

The big question: Where does the money come from to pay for the projected billions of dollars' worth of needed ecological restoration in the coming decades? Dombeck aide Chris Wood says the answer is straightforward. A large percentage of dollars formerly directed toward timber production, including below-cost sales and subsidized roads, can now be used to heal the land while still creating jobs.

The major challenge will be to persuade Western Republicans to channel money into non-timbering uses.

But Dombeck faces other problems. While Thomas absorbed the worst of the fallout from past agency excesses, years of mismanagement, shoddy record keeping and poor environmental compliance are also being spotlighted on Dombeck's watch. At an unprecedented hearing of the House Appropriations, Budget and Resources committees recently, Dombeck was asked to explain missing money and other lapses outlined in more than 100 investigations by the General Accounting Office.

Congress has been less quick to look into its part in the agency's failure to rejuvenate itself. "While the agency continues to reduce its emphasis on consumption and increase its emphasis on conservation," one GAO report concluded, "the Congress has never explicitly accepted this shift in emphasis or acknowledged its effects on the availability of other uses in national forests."

Western Republicans do not yet seem prepared to speed the transition. Mark Rey, the key policy expert for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, says Sens. Craig, Murkowski and others informally agreed to give Dombeck a one-year honeymoon after he came on board in early 1997. Now, the chief is expected to provide answers, including why the agency continues to need $3.3 billion a year while cutting two-thirds fewer trees.

It is a central question. The main challenge Dombeck faces is to convince the public, the Congress and his 30,000 staffers that the agency has a mission that goes beyond cutting, or not cutting, trees. He has reached back to Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and Aldo Leopold to make that case.

But Dombeck also appears to have a grassroots political strategy, so that he and his agency do not remain enmeshed in an endless war with the rural communities that depend economically on national forest land. He hopes to wean hundreds of Western towns from government-induced dependence by gradually "decoupling" their economic dependence on logging.

On national forests, 25 percent of receipts from logging are returned to the state to be used for schools and roads in counties where the forests are located. Since 1989, those payments have dwindled with declining timber volumes, falling from $361 million nationally to $233 million today. The counties and the rural school districts, squeezed by falling income, are major supporters of logging.

Aide Chris Wood says "the fate of schools' would be better served by separating their support from the rate at which trees are falling. "By slowly decoupling communities from the 25 percent fund, we would like to see them less subject to the whims and ups and downs of the Forest Service's timber management program. Over the short term," Wood says, "we're trying to provide a measure of stability and predictability they haven't had throughout much of this decade."

Can Mike Dombeck, a quiet and unassuming man, transform his agency? The only way Dombeck will outlast political attempts to discredit him, says Roger Kennedy, is if the administration backs him and he keeps the debate focused on how national forests are being exploited to serve a narrow constituency.

"I don't think anybody who takes on the job of reappraising the mission of an agency, be it the Park Service or Forest Service, expects that you're going to march downtown behind 76 trombones," Kennedy says. "You take the job knowing that you have to create your own inevitability. You have to approach the task of reform with such guts that you can't be disavowed."

Todd Wilkinson, a regular contributor to High Country News, lives in Bozeman, Montana. He is the author of a new book: Science Under Siege: The Politicians' War on Nature and Truth.

Sidebar articles:

"Will Dombeck sock it to rebellious supervisors"

"Breaking an agency of its old ways"

"The worker ants keep the agency alive"

"GAO knocks Forest Service again"

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