New forest chief becomes a lame duck

  • Dale Bosworth


It could turn out to be the shortest tenure as Forest Service chief in history. Dale N. Bosworth was named the 15th chief of the United States Forest Service on April 12, 2001. He may have made himself a lame duck on Friday, Aug. 24, 2001, when he removed Brad Powell as regional forester for California.

Bosworth reassigned Powell because Powell was attempting to lead the United States Forest Service into the 21st century by putting the health of the land above logging, grazing, road-building and off-road vehicle use.

Powell's sin was to transform how the Forest Service managed the Sierra Nevada, formerly known as the Range of Light. In the past, most Forest Service plans started by specifying "outputs": how many trees were to be cut, how many person-days of recreation were to be enjoyed, how many roads were to be built. But under Powell, the Pacific Southwest Region 5 took the health of the Sierra Nevada as the starting point, and let the commodity chips fall where they may (HCN, 8/27/01: Restoring the Range of Light).

Powell and his staff were attempting not just to restore the Sierra Nevada, but to continue to revitalize an agency that not long ago was on the brink of death. Starting in the 1980s, the Forest Service had been run increasingly by federal judges. They took over because the agency's commodities-first approach repeatedly broke various environmental laws, most famously in the Pacific Northwest's spotted owl case. As a result, the Forest Service was becoming a land-management agency that did not control the land. It was on its way to extinction.

The Sierra Nevada Framework attempted to reverse that trend by creating a planning approach that obeyed the laws by being good for the land and for its creatures. That made it political poison. This spring, for example, Michael Jackson, a co-founder of the Quincy Library Group, a consortium of traditional rural interests and loggers, and a fierce opponent of the Framework, predicted that Powell had "ruined his career" by signing off on the Framework.

How did Powell ruin his career? By signing the Framework during the last few days of the Clinton administration, when there was a political void, with neither administration in charge. The signing came down to the wire because attempts to create an overall plan for the Sierra Nevada had already failed twice. When Powell came on the scene two years ago to lead a third try, time was short, and the Framework wasn't ready for signing until the Clinton administration was walking out the door. Powell therefore could have sat on his hands, as Framework opponents urged him to do. That would have left the decision to the incoming Bush administration. Instead, Powell chose to act.

Has Powell's action "ruined" his career? Certainly it has interrupted his climb up the agency's bureaucratic ladder. Certainly he is being used to send an intimidating message to 29,000 Forest Service employees.

But the man who may have ruined his career - if "career" means reputation and achievement and not just offices held - is Dale Bosworth. It is true that Bosworth deserves credit for putting Powell in charge of the Northern Rockies, a regional forester position Bosworth held before becoming chief, instead of giving him a job without direct authority over land. And as we watch the State Department's pro-choice Colin Powell and the Environmental Protection Agency's pro-environment Christie Whitman struggle in this administration, we have to be sympathetic to Dale Bosworth's situation. Nevertheless, Bosworth runs the risk of being the person who shoved his agency back to the past after several progressive years.

Let's give Bosworth, a second-generation Forest Service employee and, according to everyone, a good guy, the benefit of the doubt. Let's say he moved Powell to prevent the White House from doing worse things to the national forests and the agency. The trouble is, it is hard to imagine something much worse than the forced, untimely transfer of a skilled, visionary forester in charge of the one of the most important Forest Service regions in the nation.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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