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

U.S. Forest Service: Quiet Reformation

Air Date: Week of

History may be in the making in the nation's federal forests. For decades, mining, grazing and especially logging have defined much of the mission of the US. Forest Service. But now, the agency is shifting focus and it's moving toward putting recreation, and the protection of our drinking water supply first. The man picked by the Clinton Administration to lead this change is Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, a former fishing guide and biologist. He's been on the job for a year, quietly making some internal reforms. Now Mr. Dombeck is taking his call for stewardship to Congress and the public. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. History may be in the making in the nation's Federal forests. For decades, mining, grazing, and especially logging have defined much of the mission of the US Forest Service. But now the agency is shifting focus. It's moving toward putting recreation and the protection of our drinking water supply first. The man picked by the Clinton Administration to lead this change is Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck, a former fishing guide and biologist. He's been on the job for a year, quietly making some internal reforms. Now, Mr. Dombeck is taking his call for stewardship to the Congress and the public. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick has our story.

(Ambient voices in a large gathering)

FITZ PATRICK: You might not be able to pick him out of a crowd. Quiet and earnest, he looks like an overgrown Boy Scout.

MAN: Mike Dombeck, Chief of the US Forest Service. Michael.

(The crowd applauds)

FITZ PATRICK: Speaking in public he sounds like an awkward science professor.

DOMBECK: I'd like to share with you where I think we're going and ought to be going with the Forest Service, and I've been in this job...

FITZ PATRICK: But despite his unassuming demeanor, America's chief forester is preaching revolution: reductions in logging and ranching, and greater emphasis on recreation and watershed protection. In early March the Chief unveiled a new Forest Service agenda in a speech beamed by satellite to the Agency's 30,000 employees.

DOMBECK: The agenda that I will outline will help us to engage more effectively in what I think is one of the noblest, the most important callings of our generation. Helping people find ways to live within the limits of the land.

FITZ PATRICK: Respecting the limits of the land might not sound like a radical concept, but that simple phrase has touched off one of the biggest debates ever about the future of the American West.


FITZ PATRICK: For the past 50 years, the Forest Service mission has been to "get the cut out"--supply wood for the nation's booming suburbs, jobs for rural communities, and income for the US Treasury.

(Traffic sounds; fade to buzzsaw)

FITZ PATRICK: The logging truck has been the symbol of a timber bonanza, and the logger an icon of freedom, like the cowboys of the old open range.

(Music up and under: "Oh give me land, lots of land under starry skies above; don't fence me in. Let me ride through the wide open country that I love; don't fence me in. Let me be by myself in the evening breeze..." Fade to honking horns and traffic)

FITZ PATRICK: Today the West has changed. The new symbol is the sport utility vehicle loaded with bikes and backpacks. Cities like Seattle, Denver, and Phoenix are the fastest-growing parts of America and their residents pour into the mountains every weekend: nearly a billion recreation visits to public lands every year. Suddenly, the nation's 191 million acres of Federal forests, enough territory to be the fifth largest state, aren't big enough for everyone to have their way.

ANDRUS: There are more people competing for a different use on the public land than ever before.

FITZ PATRICK: Former Idaho Governor and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus.

ANDRUS: Some of them want to graze cows on it. Some of them want to mine it. Some want to cut the trees down. Somebody else wants to ski on it. Somebody else wants to fish. Other people want to picnic. And you know, the competition is intense.

FITZ PATRICK: The Forest Service was created at the turn of the century to regulate this kind of competition. And for decades, the Agency's motto, The Land of Many Uses, reflected a belief that logging, grazing, mining, and recreation could coexist. This delicate balance has shifted since World War II, with dramatic hikes in timber production. Many observers believe this logging has ravaged the land and squeezed out everyone else. Thomas Power is an economist at the University of Montana.

POWER: Science tells us this, economics tells us this. It's just obvious looking at the land. The forests can't give us what we've been demanding from them. We've overcut the forest. We've destroyed our watersheds. We've destroyed wildlife habitat. And we're now facing the bleeding wounds that have resulted.

FITZ PATRICK: Now, Chief Dombeck says the Forest Service should return to its original philosophy of balance. At a recent forum in Idaho, he confessed the shift won't be easy.

DOMBECK: The constituencies are changing tremendously, and with that change comes conflict. And to work to balance is a tough thing. And I've got to tell you, we're not very good at it yet.

FITZ PATRICK: Already, politicians, miners, and loggers are attacking the Dombeck agenda as a Washington assault on the traditional western way of life.

(Milling voices)

LYNN HENCY: People who live on the other side of the Mississippi River have just as much to say about our public lands as we do, and that's not fair.

LAURA SKAER: What I see happening to this ecosystem management plan is that we're moving toward a land of no use, where we essentially become the amusement park for a few.

JIM ENGLISH: The Federal lands in the past have provided a great deal of our timber, and that is slowly being eroded away. And people are losing their jobs. And it looks like it is a war against us.

FITZ PATRICK: Mr. Dombeck denies his agenda is a war on the West. A more sustainable timber program, he says, can provide a more dependable economic base. It can also protect the water supply of hundreds of communities downstream.

(Flowing water; footfalls)

DOMBECK: As we move into the 21st century...

FITZ PATRICK: Walking along the snowy banks of the Bitterroot River in Montana, the Chief emphasized that healthy watersheds benefit both people and the environment.

DOMBECK: In fact, you can almost view the streams and rivers as the circulatory system, the veins and arteries, of the landscape. The condition of the streams and rivers are really a reflection of the overall quality of management of the whole landscape.

(Flowing water)

FITZ PATRICK: The situation here in the Bitterroot Valley underscores the point. A vast wilderness zone on Forest Service land helps maintain the region as one of the nation's top spots for fishing, which helps Montana's tourist industry. The Chief cites examples like this whenever he speaks.

DOMBECK: I think the most important thing that I can do for natural resources probably has to do with telling the conservation story, because we value the open space and nature so highly as a society. And maybe we just don't talk enough about the benefits. Maybe we need to talk about the importance of clean water, the importance of being able to take our kids hiking, hunting, fishing, all these kinds of things. Because that's really what this work is all about to me.

FITZ PATRICK: It's an open question if Mr. Dombeck can achieve the turnaround he seeks. He ran into a buzzsaw when proposing similar changes as Acting Director of the Federal Bureau of Land Management. And he's not the first Forest Service Chief to preach the value of ecosystem protection. His predecessor, ecologist Jack Ward Thomas, was a charismatic advocate for reform. But Mr. Thomas frequently found himself outflanked in Congress with little support from the White House.

THOMAS: Sometimes I jumped up and said, you know, and pulled my saber and yelled, "Follow me!" and got my legs chopped off from under me before I got very far. So I was charismatic and I had the right idea and I yelled, "Charge!" and I didn't do the appropriate homework, and I stepped in a gopher hole.

FITZ PATRICK: Mr. Thomas, though, credits Mike Dombeck with something he lacked: highly developed political skills. For a year now, Chief Dombeck has been consolidating his position inside the Forest Service by challenging a generation of staffers who favor timber production.

THOMAS: I don't think you're going to see Mike Dombeck ever decide to charge something that he hasn't gotten all of his ducks lined up. Well, charismatic leadership is one thing. Good smarts on how to operate internal to the government is another one.

FITZ PATRICK: After months of planning, Chief Dombeck launched his first major public initiative early this year. A daring maneuver that attacks the most controversial thing the Forest Service does: building roads that open new terrain to logging. Mr. Dombeck is declaring an 18-month moratorium on new road construction. Environmentalists have been trying for years to kill the road-building program and Sierra Club Director Carl Pope sees the moratorium as one of the boldest things any chief has ever done.

POPE: Taking a breath, and saying, "Let's look at what we're doing with the 30 million acres that are the most valuable lands left on the National Forest unprotected. That's a big step. No previous chief of the Forest Service that I know of would have taken that step.

FITZ PATRICK: The Chief portrays the moratorium as a way to de-politicize the issue, while the Forest Service evaluates where new roads should be allowed. But the unilateral action has infuriated powerful western Republicans, like Representative Helen Chenoweth of Idaho.

CHENOWITH: There used to be an eminent respect for the balance of power, and that is to say that the Congress should set policy and that the Agency should carry out the policy that the Congress set. Well now, this new roadless moratorium is a major change in policy, and it was instituted within the Agency, without an attempt, without a serious attempt at all, of the Administration to work with the Congress.

FITZ PATRICK: Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska is so enraged he's threatened to slash Forest Service funding.

MURKOWSKI: The fact that the Forest Service has chosen this tactic, a moratorium, to buy time for what we don't know, with no specific recognition of the obligation to reduce the overhead, the personnel, there's no justification to the US taxpayer for that.

FITZ PATRICK: Despite this angry reaction, Chief Dombeck hopes the plan might actually appeal to Congressional moderates and rural residents. He wants to shift the emphasis from building new roads to repairing existing roads that are vital to many communities.

DOMBECK: I grew up on one of those roads in northern Wisconsin in the Chequemegan National Forest, Forest Road 164, and it's a bus route, it's a mail route, today it's blacktopped, lots of tourists and recreationists drive down it, and yes, a few logging trucks. And so we need to shift the dynamic of the debate. Forest Service roads are an important part of the transportation infrastructure of parts of rural America, and then we need to provide funding accordingly.

FITZ PATRICK: Whether this strategy works could determine if Mike Dombeck gets a chance to pursue other elements of his agenda. Andy Stahl of the group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics says the struggle could bring the Chief the momentum he needs to win White House backing for bigger reforms.

STAHL: If he shows himself to be attuned to the wishes of the American people, to be wise in the manner in which he deals with Congress, the White House will look to him for advice and counsel. The new roads policy certainly helps him. I think the White House has been waiting to see what he would do during his first year, and he hadn't done much.

FITZ PATRICK: Others expect Mr. Dombeck to propose additional initiatives soon. According to Cecil Andrus, the Forest Service is at an important crossroads, but the Chief's opportunity to make an historic change won't last long.

ANDRUS: Mike's going to have to strike while the iron is hot or he's not going to get anything done. I would say that his proposals will sink or swim in the next, well, 12 months, and if Congress continues in with their bombastic rhetoric, Mike Dombeck will throw up his hands and say, "Hey, I've got a lot better things to do with my life than to take this kind of abuse with no hope of ever getting any help."

FITZ PATRICK: For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick reporting.



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