The road to roadless 

Retired Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck returns to Missoula

Mike Dombeck, former chief of the USDA Forest Service, might have been considered the environmentalists’ chief. During the four years he led an agency pulled in various directions by loggers and farmers, environmentalists and ranchers, Congress and the Clinton administration, Dombeck forged a new path for the agency and fostered a public appreciation of the forests for their value as wildlands rather than just sources of commodities.

This week, Dombeck returns to western Montana, where he will deliver the keynote address at the 16th Annual Wild Rockies Rendezvous, sponsored by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

Since his retirement from politics shortly after George W. Bush was sworn in as president, Dombeck has been indulging his passion for writing and lecturing at the University of Wisconsin, where he is professor of global environmental management. Although managing the global environment sounds like a daunting, if not impossible task, Dombeck says he’s content in an academic role that has allowed him time to write a book. Conquest to Conservation: Our Public Land Legacy is due at his publisher by the end of November, and should hit bookstores by the middle of next year.

“I’m doing now what I’ve wanted to do for 25 years,” Dombeck told the Independent this week. “I came to Washington 15 years ago, thinking I’d stay no more than five years. With the change in administration I thought it was the right time to go.” This was especially true since he didn’t see anyone in the new Bush Administration getting “resoundingly behind” his baby: a sweeping proposal to protect nearly 60 million acres of roadless land from development.

Under Dombeck’s leadership, the Forest Service ran afoul of all the usual suspects with an interest in public land management: timber corporations, national and local conservation groups, champions of endangered species, and small towns with logging-dependent economies. Through it all, Dombeck managed to convey a sense that national forests are valuable for their own sake. And in the words of one environmentalist, he gave the agency’s field workers a much-needed voice in management.

“He empowered the ‘ologists,’” says Larry Campbell, executive director of Friends of the Bitterroot, in reference to the wildlife biologists, hydrologists and other agency experts. Under Dombeck’s leadership, the “ologists” were empowered enough that they never had to become “ostitutes,” Campbell says. “Under Dombeck, if you were pushing against the current you would ultimately have a forum because everybody knew Dombeck was going to be in favor of professional integrity. So you couldn’t use the old ‘get-out-the-timber-sale-by-squelching-all-the-information’ and get away with it. Everything would be counted in the analysis. It has everything to do with leadership quality.”

“You’re probably giving me too much credit,” Dombeck says in answer to Campbell’s characterization. If he had anything to do with boosting morale among foresters, Dombeck says, it was only because he continued a tradition begun by his predecessor, Jack Ward Thomas. It was Thomas who brought home the idea of ecosystem management, and it is Forest Service headquarters that has struggled to catch up with its field workers ever since.

During Dombeck’s tenure, the Forest Service also wrestled with an administration that had little or no feel for western land issues. (During his presidency, Bill Clinton took a camping vacation in the Rockies. Reportedly he hated it, preferring instead the well-manicured links of Martha’s Vineyard.)

In the end, though, Clinton did his environmental supporters a much-owed and long-overdue favor in the form of nearly 60 million acres of roadless land slated for permanent protection. To many, it appeared to be an 11th-hour decision, made only to appease the environmental groups he had largely ignored during the previous seven years.

Dombeck, who put together the roadless package, sees it differently. Early on in his tenure he saw what others either didn’t see or wouldn’t acknowledge: a network of failing forest roads crisscrossing the continent that the public could not afford to maintain. By the 1990s, forest road maintenance had become an $8.4 billion tax liability. Clearly, a moratorium on new road construction was warranted. He spent three of his four years working on the proposal that became known as the roadless initiative, hardly an 11th hour proposal, he says. “Those who perceive it going too fast probably didn’t like it [to begin with].”

The timing turned out to be all wrong in another sense, however. Clinton signed the initiative with only days left in his administration, leaving the door open for the Bush administration to modify it by soliciting another round of public comments. Environmentalists argue now that had Clinton signed the bill a mere two weeks earlier it would have become law.

But Dombeck isn’t too concerned that the Bush administration will have much impact on his original proposal.

“The reality is, the road-building era is over,” he says. “With 386,000 miles [of roads] and an $8.4 billion liability we’re not going to see a lot of land managers proposing more roads. I would hope this administration would take those [public] comments seriously and take the long view. It will be interesting to see what the public wants this time around.”

The opposition to the roadless initiative, he says, comes not from those who believe Clinton shoved it through at the last minute without sufficient public debate, but rather from a disinformation campaign that warned about imminent road closures—no roads will close under the roadless initiative—and from those who fear that roadless designation will ultimately lead to wilderness status, thereby forever closing off public lands to industry.

Only time will tell whether Dombeck’s proposal will stand. In the meantime, other environmental concerns have worked their way to the forefront, and it is these issues—Dombeck’s “Top 10 List”—that he will speak about in Missoula. Among them are the spread of noxious weeds and exotic species, the 1872 mining law—“the most egregious law on the books”—habitat fragmentation, public education, and, most pressing, water. “The issue we should be looking at is water,” says Dombeck, who predicts that water will be this nation’s next major crisis.

Dombeck will deliver his keynote address Thursday at 7:30 PM at the Missoula Children’s Theatre. He encourages the public to attend, at the very least to hear him tell stories he says just shouldn’t be in print.

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