June 1999 Volume 6, Number 5
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
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
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
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
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