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The Planet
June 1999 Volume 6, Number 5

Dombeck on Record

by Jenny Coyle

Are the Chief's Words Progressive? Or Pulp?

After my interview with U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, I realized I had dressed like a tree that day: long brown skirt, green leaf-print blouse, hair swept up like a bird's nest.

Lucky thing I didn't accidentally dress like a logging road. Dombeck was in San Francisco to speak at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in March. I got 35 minutes of his time.

The chief sounds good on paper - and in person. He told me, for example, that the Forest Service is "moving away from rewarding people for hard targets - like board feet of timber, recreation visitor days - to outcomes on the land, like soil stability, water quality, forest health, what conditions your roads are in, the quality of customer service."

His speeches to staff and the public emphasize the importance of watershed health and restoration, sustainable forest management, the need to maintain fish and wildlife habitat and provide recreational opportunities. Even better, Dombeck has started to make some positive changes in an agency that moves, critics say, slower than a tree grows.

Still, the Sierra Club howled this spring when the agency's moratorium on roadbuilding in roadless areas excluded 26 national forests, leaving an extra 15 million acres vulnerable to logging-road construction. And our forest-management watchdogs regularly challenge poorly designed forest plans and projects that put flora, fauna and water supplies at risk. "We'd like to believe Dombeck's rhetoric," said the Club's forest issues specialist Sean Cosgrove. "Unfortunately, the Forest Service continues to log old-growth forests and puts a money-losing timber-sale program ahead of protection and much-needed forest restoration."

The Club isn't alone in that thinking. Earlier this year the Inspector General studied 12 Forest Service timber plans and sales and found that all were flawed. The report noted illegal tree cutting, failure to curtail environmental damage and the absence of surveys for threatened and endangered species.

"We've got to be more vigilant in our inspections and in our reviews of projects," said Dombeck when asked about the report's conclusions. "Accountability is an issue for the Forest Service. We've got to make sure that the right things are happening on the land." He outlined a four-part accountability model to accomplish that: set priorities, provide the resources to do the work based on the priorities, monitor the results, and then reward or discipline accordingly. "Most people, when they think of accountability, they think someone's going to get in trouble. But the fact is that's the wrong model; you've got to reward the good behavior," he said.

Dombeck is making personnel changes as well - and there are more to come because 40 percent of the Forest Service workforce will be eligible to retire in five to eight years. "This will really provide us the opportunity to adjust the skill mix," he said. "I'm looking for people with an impeccable land ethic, individuals with good communication skills - people skills - because more and more of the job of natural-resource management is working with people."

Something else he's working to change: the so-called 25 percent fund. The government gives 25 percent of timber-sale receipts to the counties in which the timber sale took place to assist schools and road programs. More than one school superintendent has accused environmentalists of "holding our children hostage" when appeals and lawsuits delay or halt timber harvests. Dombeck would rather see a set annual payment. As the chief says, "Is it appropriate for the richest country in the world to fund the education of rural children on the back of a controversial timber program?"

Controversial is right. So I asked him to name a national forest where responsible management is taking place.

First he explained (as he had several times during our interview) that his idea of good forest management is to "look at the land base we have, decide the condition we want the forest to be in, and apply the best science and technology." Then he named the Ocala National Forest in Florida.

"It's the first time I ever saw a Sierra Club member support clearcutting. Timber harvest is not the objective; the objective is that there are scrub jays, which are a [threatened] species, and scrub jay habitat needs opening. They're doing small clearcuts of three to five acres, and prescribed fire. We're improving habitat for a threatened species."

I ran that by Judy Hancock, forest issues chair for the Club's Florida Chapter. "We have agreed to support clearcuts in the sand pine, which mimics the large natural fires that historically swept through these communities and helped maintain scrub jay habitat, but which can't be used now because of encroaching neighborhoods," she said. "The Club wouldn't support this management strategy if it wasn't necessary."

What the Club does support is ending commercial logging on national forests. I reminded Dombeck that in a speech to his employees he set forth his philosophy by saying, "We must protect the last best places and restore the rest." Calling a halt to commercial logging seems consistent with that, right?

The goal is a healthy, functioning watershed that maintains water quality, Dombeck said, and that shouldn't necessarily exclude cutting trees.

"We've got to broaden our view of what forests do for us," he said. "They're important for fiber production, but are also important for lots of other values. An average tree produces enough oxygen for a family of four to breathe in a year and sequesters 13 pounds of carbon. Now that's important."

"So why cut them down?" I asked.

"By law, we are a multiple-use agency," Dombeck replied, citing the Organic Act of 1897, which orders the agency to provide favorable conditions for water flows - and a sustainable supply of timber.

Go on to the next article, "EPA Listens: New Rules for Cars, Gas."

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