Reshaping National Forest Policy

By Anderson, H. Michael | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Reshaping National Forest Policy


Anderson, H. Michael, Issues in Science and Technology


Chief Mike Dombeck is steering the Forest Service in a fundamentally different direction.

During his two and a half years as chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Mike Dombeck has received considerable attention and praise from some unlikely sources. On June 15 this year, for instance, the American Sportfishing Association gave Dombeck its "Man of the Year" award. Two days earlier, the New York Times Magazine featured Dombeck as "the environmental man of the hour," calling him "the most aggressive conservationist to head the Forest Service in at least half a century."

Dombeck has also drawn plenty of criticism, especially from the timber industry and members of Congress who want more trees cut in the 192-million-acre National Forest System. Last year, angered by Dombeck's conservation initiatives, four western Republicans who chair the Senate and House committees and subcommittees that oversee the Forest Service threatened to slash the agency's budget. They wrote to Dombeck, "Since you seem bent on producing fewer and fewer results from the National Forests at rapidly increasing costs, many will press Congress to seriously consider the option to simply move to custodial management of our National Forests in order to stem the flow of unjustifiable investments. That will mean the Agency will have to operate with significantly reduced budgets and with far fewer employees."

Based on his performance to date, Dombeck is clearly determined to change how the Forest Service operates. He has a vision of the future of the national forests that is fundamentally at odds with the longstanding utilitarian orientation of most of his predecessors. Dombeck wants the Forest Service to focus on protecting roadless areas, repairing damaged watersheds, improving recreation opportunities, identifying new wilderness areas, and restoring forest health through prescribed fire.

Although Dombeck's conservation-oriented agenda seems to resonate well with the U.S. public, it remains to be seen how successful he will be in achieving his goals. To succeed, he must overcome inertial or hostile forces within the Forest Service and Congress, while continuing to build public support by taking advantage of opportunities to implement his conservation vision.

An historic shift

Dombeck's policies and performance signify an historic transformation of the Forest Service and national forest management. Since the national forests were first established a century ago, they have been managed principally for utilitarian objectives. The first chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, emphasized in a famous 1905 directive that "all the resources of the [national forests] are for use, and this use must be brought about in a prompt and businesslike manner." After World War II, the Forest Service began in earnest to sell timber and build logging access roads. For the next 40 years, the national forests were systematically logged at a rate of about 1 million acres per year. The Forest Service's annual timber output of 11 billion board feet in the late 1980s represented 12 percent of the United States' total harvest. By the early 1990s, there were 370,000 miles of roads in the national forests.

During the postwar timber-production era of the Forest Service, concerns about the environmental impacts of logging and road building on the national forests steadily increased. During the 1970s and 1980s, Forest Service biologists such as Jerry Franklin and Jack Ward Thomas became alarmed at the loss of biological diversity and wildlife habitat resulting from logging old-growth forests. Aquatic scientists from federal and state agencies and the American Fisheries Society presented evidence of serious damage to streams and fish habitats caused by logging roads. At the same time, environmental organizations stepped up their efforts to reform national forest policy by lobbying Congress to reduce appropriations for timber sales and roads, criticizing the Forest Service in the press, and filing lawsuits and petitions to protect endangered species. …

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