Will Dombeck sock it to rebellious supervisors?

  • WHISTLEBLOWER: Tom Kovalicky

    photo courtesy Tom Kovalicky

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories.

For three decades, Tom Kovalicky worked his way up the ranks of the Forest Service bureaucracy until he became supervisor of the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho during the 1980s.

Once in that position, Kovalicky attempted to restrain the logging on the Nez Perce. That led to clashes with the Idaho congressional delegation, and eventually prompted him to become one of the agency's highest-ranking whistleblowers.

Now Kovalicky is retired, and lives in Grangeville, Idaho. But he still pays close attention to the outfit he spent his working life in.

"Mike Dombeck clearly has a vision for taking the Forest Service on the path toward redemption and re-establishing the high standards of public respect which the agency clearly has lost," Kovalicky says.

But Kovalicky says Dombeck must do more than articulate a vision: "What Dombeck has got to do is give his forest supervisors clear direction and if they don't achieve what he wants, then have a strong talk with them. If they resist, then get rid of them. It is important to put the fear of God in people who are misbehaving - like those in the timber program tried to do against those who are telling the truth. 

"When you talk about cultural paradigm changes in an agency like the Forest Service, you have to remember a phenomenon that occurs in a decentralized bureaucracy. Bosses tend to gather around and reward people who act like them. If a forest supervisor has a vision to cut trees and build roads, then those are the kind of employees he or she will beget."

Does Kovalicky think Dombeck can succeed? Only if Dombeck can break the cycle, which Kovalicky says is much like "co-dependency in a dysfunctional or alcoholic family."

The chief must reach out in substantial ways to rural areas that feel abandoned as a result of the closures of ranger districts, Kovalicky says. These are the local presences "that have represented the heart and soul of the Forest Service for the last century."

Instead of closing ranger districts, "they should be seeing how they can eliminate 200 jobs in the regional offices. All studies show that regional offices are artifacts."

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