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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Forest Farewell

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Mike Dombeck's gone fishing. At least, that's what he did the day after stepping down as Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Mr. Dombeck had led the Forest Service since 1997. Under his leadership the Forest Service focused on conservation rather than timber harvests. He moved to protect old growth forests from logging, and to halt roadbuilding in national forests. In his March twenty-seventh letter of resignation to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman , Mike Dombeck wrote, "I recognize that short-term political imperatives run rampant in Washington, D.C. Please remember that the decisions you make through your tenure will have implications that will last many generations." I asked Mr. Dombeck why he offered that advice.

DOMBECK: Our forests are among the oldest things that we have on Earth. You know, many trees live to be several hundred years old. In the case of the Giant Sequoias, they may be 3,000 years old. And I think we all understand that, you know, the political cycles in Washington and in local communities, as well, are run from one-year, two-year, four-year, six-year, or eight-year terms. And it's important that, as we view our national forests and all of our forested landscapes in particular, we just make sure that we really take the long view. Because our actions on the landscape have lasting effects. For example, the watersheds of the Appalachian Mountains of my home state of Wisconsin, the upper Midwest, that were clear-cut and burned back in the late 1800s, are really still in the process of recovery. And the actions that took place 100 years ago are still impacting the land and the people that live there.

CURWOOD: Why did you feel the need to write what really sounds like a warning to the Bush administration on Forest Service practices?

DOMBECK: You know, I want to point out that so many things are really non-controversial. And if we do anything, and a piece of advice and a dialogue that I had with Secretary Veneman and her staff was that it's important not to spend too much time in the zone of controversy, because there are a lot of areas of agreement that we can make progress on. And when we focus on those areas of agreement, we use taxpayer dollars much, much more efficiently, and we make much more progress on the land.

CURWOOD: Let's look at some of the more controversial issues you faced during your tenure at the Forest Service. The one that's receiving the most attention at the moment is the roadless initiative that was intended to go into effect last month. And it would have barred road building on about 60 million acres of federal land. But there have been a number of obstacles put in its path as a lawsuit, and the Bush administration isn't stepping up to defend it. In fact, they seem to be pushing to delay the rule's effective date. You worked hard on the roadless initiative over these last few years. How does it feel to see it in limbo like this?

DOMBECK: There are a couple of ways you can look at roadless areas. Number one, if we look at it from a biological point of view, like wilderness areas, these are the last remaining areas of biodiversity, the anchors for many rare or endangered species, the best spawning habitats for salmon. This is their last stronghold. The next place they're important is the recreation experience. Private lands are being posted with "No Trespassing" signs at an increasing rate. In many cases, certainly where I live here in Virginia, if you're not on a National Forest or state land or public land, you've basically got to belong to some sort of a club to have access to private land to do these things. So, this wild land experience is what's shrinking in the United States. And now, let's take a look at roadless from a business point of view. If you are a private landowner, and you have 386,000 miles of roads, and you have an $8.4 billion liability in maintenance, would you continue to build infrastructure? Probably not.

CURWOOD: One of the hard questions here for you is the timing in the roadless business. If this had been concluded well before the end of the Clinton administration, it wouldn't be in the jeopardy that it faces now. What happened to this process? Why was it so late?

DOMBECK: Well, I would say the process wasn't late. The fact is, what we did was we were very careful to follow the administrative rulemaking process. And 600 public meetings, information put out to the public on the Web, mailed out in CD-ROMs and environmental impact statements. In my quarter of a century as a public servant, I don't believe I've seen any issue that has been more thoroughly vetted than this one of roadless. My advice to Secretary Veneman of this administration is, let's not open up this divisive debate. Let's just let it rest and put our energy where we can do the most good in the urban wild land interface, in reducing fire risk and providing local jobs and fiber in areas that are already roaded.

CURWOOD: You're leaving, of course, before the roadless initiative is implemented. I'm wondering if you feel in any way that you're abandoning it?

DOMBECK: Not at all. You know, four years in this job, three years as head of the Bureau of Land Management. These are tough jobs. A transition is time to move on, and there's always more work to do. But I've got to tell you, we've got a 33,000 employee work force, the Forest Service that I'll put up against any work force in the country. There's a lot more to the Forest Service than the chief.

CURWOOD: That's an interesting point. No matter what direction your successor takes, what do you think the culture of the Forest Service itself will do here? What, in fact, will be the practical approach of the 33,000 employees there?

DOMBECK: The roadbuilding era of the Forest Service is over. We're moving into an era of maintenance, of restoration, and we're moving away from the era of forest development. It's time that we look at forests in their broadest sense. You know, people love forests, and people love trees. And we need to place the values of water, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation, preserving our cultural heritage, timber production, all of these on an equal plane. And I've got to tell you, with what I see in some of the traditional forestry community, end quote, is in spite of the dialogue, first and foremost on their mind is timber production. And that -- it's to their best interests to change.

CURWOOD: What do you worry about? What do you fear for our forests as you leave office?

DOMBECK: I'm worried that we may, as a society, lose our appreciation of what the land does for us, why open space is important. The fact that a single tree sequesters about 13 pounds of carbon each year, that a single tree produces enough oxygen for a family of four to breathe. The water filtration functions of the vegetation on the landscape. It's important for people to appreciate and connect to the land.

CURWOOD: What would you like people to remember Mike Dombeck's tenure at the Forest Service to have been?

DOMBECK: Water. If I brought about any changes in emphasis in the Forest Service, it was to elevate the understanding and the importance of watershed protection, watershed restoration, to be put on an equal par with the other resource values. We've got this tremendous source of clean water on our forested landscapes, and the more we can do to maintain that the better off we will be as a society 50 and 100 years from now.

CURWOOD: Mike Dombeck is the former Chief of the U.S. Forestry Service. Thanks so much for speaking with us today.

DOMBECK: Thank you, Steve.



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