Former Forest Service Chief: The Environment Is a Security Issue, Too

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After earning a Ph.D. in fisheries biology, Mike Dombeck spent 25 years managing federal lands and resources. He was acting director of the Bureau of Land Management from 1994-1997 and chief of the U.S. Forest Service from 1997-2001. He is now a professor in the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Q: AMERICAN FORESTS: You've written that the environment is connected to the country's long-term security and that we are "facing unparalleled environmental threats." How so?

A: Dombeck: Something like 80 percent of the populace now lives in urban areas. Our number one challenge should be to reconnect people to the land, to help people understand ecological services and what the land does for us. Since September 11 (2001) we have had a president who has used the word "security" virtually every day. The public is tuned in to this word. So just as we have this dialogue about security against terrorism or energy security or social security, we need to be talking about ecological security.

I believe the wealth and quality of life we enjoy ultimately come from the land. The bottom line is to help people understand the limits of the land and the price we pay when we don't stay within those limits, from the standpoint of maintaining water quality, biodiversity, long-term forest health, and preventing soil erosion, all basic ecosystem func-...

Q: AMERICAN FORESTS: You mentioned reconnecting urbanites with nature. How do you make wetlands or obscure creatures important to people who live in cities?

A: Dombeck: I don't think you start there. You start with helping people understand the importance of basic ecological services-topsoil, something as basic as water.

As chief of the Forest Service, I spoke more about water and watershed health than any other issue. All the natural resource issues in the debate-grazing, whether to cut trees, recreational use, mining-there was a narrow constituency for each of those interests.

But everybody in the world needs a certain amount of water every day. So I felt that one of the best ways to get people interested in better forest management was to talk about water and water quality, because in the United States the most water and the cleanest water flows off of our forested landscapes.

But we get hung up on board-feet of timber and the traditional debate about whether to cut trees, which detracts from the importance of the ecological services that forests provide.

Q: AMERICAN FORESTS: Meanwhile, forest areas are getting splintered into smaller and smaller parcels, which has implications not only for the preservation of ecosystems but for public access to land.

A: Dombeck: We need to help people understand the importance of large unfragmented landscapes. We are losing these at a phenomenal rate. From 1978 to 1994, the number of forested tracts under 50 acres doubled. In my state of Wisconsin there are about 16 million acres of forested land, and over a million acres changed hands just in the last year and a half.

We see timber companies and paper companies divesting themselves of forested land because the recreational and aesthetic value of it has exceeded the value of it to produce timber. It's happening particularly in areas where there are lots of lakes and rivers-Maine, Wisconsin, Michigan-a phenomenal rate of development and fragmentation.

When you do that in rural areas, with houses on five- or 10-acre forested plots, you have a much higher number of white-tailed deer, which leads to significant forest management problems. And every road, every driveway, basically provides an avenue for the introduction of invasive exotic species that ultimately lead to problems.

Additionally, since the bulk of fires in the U.S. are human-caused, we have a higher probability of wildfire in areas that are fragmented by higher densities of roads. …