In the volumes of history now being written on Americaâs unique experience with nature and natural resources, only the names of three or four men are certain to be found in every serious work dealing with our forests and timber.

     Aldo Leopold will be remembered as the practical father of modern environmentalism. Gifford Pinchot will be noted for his insight in creation of the U.S. Forest Service. And such a book will have to remember, maybe even more readily than the spiritual guidance of John Muir himself, Jack Ward Thomas, chief of the Forest Service during the first half of the Clinton administration.

     Thomas directed policy over the 191-million-acre empire of the Forest Service in perhaps its most perilous period, when conflicting views over the use of natural resources divided the nation as never before. At the center of national debate and relentless lawsuits were vast stands of forest and timber manipulated almost as if they were chess pieces in an intense political game.

     But even before that, Thomas had established a worldwide reputation as a forest biologist, esteemed as one of only a handful of prominent scientists working directly for the federal government. He had the respect and trust of both Republican and Democrat administrations as a scholar vital to national interests. At the end of the 1980s, there seemed no question that he was the best man possible to lead the teams appointed to study the spotted owl and the future of old-growth logging in the Pacific Northwest. It was a study that was about to turn federal forest management on its head.

     In his book produced last summer, ăThe Journals of a Forest Service Chief,ä edited by Harold K. Steen, Thomas writes in a journal entry from 1990 that: ăThe faces of the thousands of people who will be hurt by this haunt my sleep and my private thoughts. A congressman asked me, sarcastically, during the hearings last week, ÎHave you ever thought about the people who will be hurt by what you recommended?â I answered, ÎEvery goddamn night from one to five in the morning. But that doesnât change the biology of the situation.âä

     Thomasâs journal entries covering the next six years of his leadership in the Forest Service are equally blunt and candid. He is a complex scholar torn by his knowledge; a serious scientist dedicated to a harsh truth. If he seems on one side of a policy confrontation that cost thousands of jobs and ruined entire communities, his heart is just as often on the other side, worrying that the runaway impetuosity and idealism among Clinton appointees might serve to do greater damage than good. He seeks balance and thought in a gradually more unreasonable realm of politics.

     At one point, he observes former Wilderness Society director George Frampton at the height of his imperiousness as Clintonâs Undersecretary for Fish and Wildlife. They were debating a federal judgeâs ruling that favored aspects of the timber salvage provision allowing harvest in damaged areas.

     ăHe [Frampton] led the discussion. The arguments are strictly political: It is essential to keep faith with Îour constituentsâ who, it was clear to me, was the environmental community. I said that it was difficult for me to understand how Congress can overwhelmingly pass a bill that is then signed by the president...and the executive branch can then argue that it should not be carried out.... The cold stares [around the room] were dominant. Mine was not the politically correct posture.ä

     If there is still any doubt of how environmental zealots and arrogant ideologues attempted to consolidate their power in Clintonâs administration, Thomasâs journal rather politely settles the question. It is there with Frampton, and even more in his encounters with Katy McGinty, Vice President Al Goreâs protŽgŽ as head of the Council on Environmental Quality, who flits about in conflicting policy-making and then ducks into the shadows, leaving Thomas and others to take the heat.

     And even to Bruce Babbitt himself, who was not satisfied with the gargantuan empire he controlled as Secretary of the Interior, and seemed simply to bully aside the Secretary of Agriculture in spreading his domain over the Forest Service as well.

     Clintonâs choice of Thomas for the subcabinet position as Forest Service chief broke with tradition in naming a working scientist with no real management experience in dealing with the timber industry, or for that matter, the environmental organizations. Clinton didnât pick Thomas for his politics. He chose him for his courage.

     Both his Texas-based independence and his even temper would be tested many times during Thomasâs term in Washington. In the end, however, it was perhaps his patience that gave way over what he saw as the ăpoliticizationä of Americaâs most vital interests.

     In a 1995 journal entry Thomas writes: ăThis administrationâs lack of will or sheer intestinal fortitude to make tough decisions and then hang tough afterward is endemic. That, coupled with the unwillingness to put anybody in clear charge of anything, is producing one convoluted mess after another.ä

     Thomas did not believe in conspiracy theories and saw no such thing. Yet he witnessed erratic and even ăad hocä policy-making with little thought given to the consequences. He saw Babbitt barge past a Congress somehow too lame to take a decisive stand of its own. Rules became laws, lawyers became tyrants, and politics was the ultimate tune.

     When he chose to retire at the end of the first Clinton administration, the new forest chief quickly named to replace Thomas in the Department of Agriculture was Mike Dombeck, the former Interior Department BLM director for Bruce Babbitt. Dombeck already had 30 years in the Forest Service and was generally regarded as politically groomed for the job of chief when he was ăloanedä to Babbitt in the Department of the Interior.

     That much, however, you must find in the nuances and anecdotes detailed in the Thomas journals, because he writes with dignity and no bitterness, never betraying his personal loyalty or his firm allegiance to scientific integrity. Today, Thomas is Boone and Crockett professor of wildlife conservation at the University of Montana in Missoula. He teaches from the same belief that has marked his entire career: that the management of wildlife is ă90 percent about people and 10 percent about animals.ä

 

Q&A

     RANGE: We have all come to think of it in terms of the surrogate, the spotted owl, but of course it was not the owl that was at stake in your reports, it was the future of our old-growth forests. You agonized with it then. Do you still?

     THOMAS: The spotted owl was the trigger÷not the real underlying issue. That issue was the rapid diminution and concurrent fragmentation of remaining old-growth forests. I still agonize over the consequences of facing up to that issue, but it was something we were coming to sooner or later. We were on a collision course with clear-cutting of old growth÷a very special habitat÷that would have produced a conflict with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that required some solution. That was going to be hard to face up to, and harder the longer we waited.

     RANGE: You alone are often credited, if thatâs the word, with the plan for harvest reduction that would cost thousands of jobs. Now, looking back, was there no other way?

     THOMAS: I donât really deserve all that credit, or that blame, depending on oneâs point of view. Compliance with the law required that adjustment. The severity of it was dictated by waiting too long to comply with the law. There is plenty of blame to go around for that delay. However, I was leader of a series of teams that brought forth the assessments and alternatives that political leaders used to make their decisions. I accept that responsibility, but believe me, none of us really relished our assignments. We turned over every damn rock and looked every way we could to develop options that would stand up to technical and judicial review and lessen the social and economic impacts. In the end, we gave the president 10 options. Without any recommendations from us, he chose one÷not the toughest one by any means. It was an action that had to be done.

     RANGE: Yet now, there is at least argument that the owl does not require old growth. Does that change anything?

     THOMAS: The latest reviews do not indicate such a conclusion is warranted. Owlâs numbers continue to decline and now, new problems are emerging. But it is important that the owl was only the trigger. The preservation of the old-growth ecosystem as required by the ESA was the ultimate objective.

     RANGE: It seems like part of what you encountered was a desire of Secretary Babbittâs to claim domain over all public lands, including those designated to the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture.

     THOMAS: I donât know that I interpreted it that way. The issue was confused. Babbitt had authority over most of the public lands (BLM, national parks, and wildlife refuges), and he had jurisdiction over one of the primary agencies that administered the ESA÷the Fish & Wildlife Service. The national forests were under the management of the Department of Agricultureâs Forest Service. The direction given by the president of the United States was to treat all the federal lands as a single ăpackageä in coming up with a management strategy, and to spare private lands as much as possible. Babbitt was simply the biggest player in the presidentâs cabinet.

     RANGE: And he had the ESA.

     THOMAS: Yes. ESA was the 500-pound gorilla. That, of all the operative legislation, had the biggest impact.

     RANGE: You note in your book your concern for ad hoc regulations and rules that become law. Would that apply to the ESA?

     THOMAS: The senator I knew best and had the most respect for, Mark Hatfield (D-Ore.), always maintained that when the senators voted on the ESA, they were thinking primarily of larger animals, and were not thinking in terms of ălesserä species such as insects and plants. Even so, if that is not what the legislators had in mind, it was and is their responsibility to step in and clarify matters. The ESA has never been reinterpreted and clarified by Congress. Its meaning today has been pieced together one case at a time by the courts.

     RANGE: And, among other results, that has seemed to pit the people against the government. Not exactly conforming to your own ideal.

     THOMAS: Anybody dealing with natural resources is always dealing more with people than with other factors. The ESA emphasizes the preservation of biodiversity over all other factors. It does provide an escape clause÷the so-called ăGod Squadä÷if the consequences of compliance are deemed too severe. But that has proven to provide little relief from the consequences of the application of the ESA. I always thought the problem in the ESA was that it was a negative economic impact as opposed to a positive. In other words, if you were ranching and you found an endangered species on your property, the least you might do is suffer a fit of nervous trepidation. I would prefer a situation where that rancher could benefit from providing habitat for a threatened species, and feel it is a positive, not a negative circumstance.

     In my classes, I ask the students to tell me the purpose of the ESA. They nearly always say it is to keep species from going extinct. But that is not the stated purpose. The purpose is the preservation of ecosystems upon which threatened or endangered species depend. That is what has led land-management agencies into the era of ecosystem management. The declaration of a species as threatened or endangered is an indicator that the underlying ecosystem is in trouble.

     RANGE: But itâs also a way mischief is made, is it not, with lawsuits and arbitrary rules and regulations?

     THOMAS: We find ourselves facing a Gordian knot. To clarify that, the Gordian knot was a test devised by the ancient ruler Gordius to determine the rightful ruler of Asia. The rightful ruler was the person who could unravel the knot. All failed, until Alexander the Great simply whacked into it with his sword. Our myriad laws and regulations and related court decisions have produced a Gordian knot that is strangling public law management. Nobody can cut that knot but Congress. I see no real signal that Congress has its sword in hand and raised. Congress has not lived up to its responsibility. And it wonât unless folks figure out the shell game wherein bureaucrats get all the heat for handling, in the best way they can, an impossibly complex task.

     RANGE: Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) has vowed to revisit the ESA in the next session, and, in his words, ăgut it.ä

     THOMAS: (Sarcastically) Good luck. The ESA has always been the ăthird railä of politics. You wonât defuse that rail except through very sensitive diplomacy and a great deal of reasoning together. I have no idea what Congressman Pombo said. But I will venture to be something of a prophet. Any member of Congress who sets out to gut the ESA will fail. The American people, in my opinion, are in agreement with the underlying intent of the ESA. I am in agreement with that intent. We do not need to gut the ESA. We need to adjust, or even to replace, the ESA in a way that we can achieve its intent in a more rational, affordable and effective way with less economic and social damage. The ESA is one of the most powerful laws in the land. There is reason for that.

     RANGE: To be sure, but had 9/11 not occurred in 2001, it seems to me that the issue of the environment would be far higher on the attention scale than it is now. Donât you think some new dialogue must begin?

     THOMAS: Thereâs nothing that brings the body politic to its senses like a setback in the economy or a threat from abroad. We are facing a huge deficit. Unemployment is high÷and stubborn. The unemployment, or underemployment, is not evenly distributed across the United States but is worse in portions of states that are most rural in nature and more historically related to the production of basic resources. These are sobering effects. It is likely time to reconsider the state of affairs related to the portions of our economy that deal with basic resources. In my opinion, we need to have basic reform in how we are managing our commons÷and for what. We seem to continue to be fascinated by passing issues of the moment and continue to ignore the need for reform at a more inclusive level.

     For example, I contend that picking at the scab of ăroadless areasä in the national forests is but a diversion from more significant questions. We donât create roadless areas. We create ăroadedä areas by the simple action of building roads for some rational purpose. Simply put, the Forest Service has already roaded every piece of ground where benefits exceeded costs, and some where even that wasnât true. With greatly increased roading standards, it is quite unlikely that there are many roadless areas with a need for a road. Why go back and pick at that scab? Itâs a waste of time, political capital and money.

     RANGE: But what of that ultimate sobering effect?

     THOMAS: There are more of us in this country every day, and everybody wants a piece of the good life. Our people are becoming more and more divided between those who have a piece of that good life and those who donât, and it is an increasingly volatile situation. We must wake up and see that we need to exploit our own natural resources in order to live. The real question is how do we do that most effectively and in a sustainable manner? Clearly, we are not reducing our demands on natural resources. We are simply shifting those demands to elsewhere. The result is that we have what we want or need and ăelsewhereä absorbs the ecological consequences. At the same time, we export dollars and jobs associated with providing these resources and, too frequently, elsewhere has neither the technological expertise nor the will to manage its lands on a sustainable basis. This raises moral as well as economic and social consequences.

     When we make such decisions and producers and workers in regions of our own country suffer the consequences, we seemingly just shrug. When the consequences of our national resources management, such as decisions on the public lands of the Pacific Northwest, became manifest, those in other regions, especially in the metropolitan areas, just shrugged. But when you live and work in these communities you see and feel things a little differently. Those who will lose their jobs and their livelihoods are not just statistics. They are the people you go to Lions Club with or with whom you coach little league. Their kids are your kidâs classmates; they sit beside you in church. As you move from urban centers nearer to the forest and rangelands, the more serious this becomes.

     I recently wrote a paper based on the old theory of the ătragedy of the commonsä in which it is suggested that, left to our own devices, we will just beat hell out of any lands we own in common. We addressed that with public lands and devised means to overcome this likelihood. But where the tragedy of the commons was once inevitable overuse, it has evolved into a different but nonetheless tragic form. This new tragedy of the commons is that these lands are not being managed to satisfy our peopleâs demands for natural resources and provide our people with jobs in the process. That new tragedy comes first to those who live in the midst of those resource areas.

     But it isnât just an economic question. At the moment, we seem to be making our decisions more on what we consume than on what we produce. Budget deficits and balance of trade deficits are something that ăeggheadsä in some universities ponder. But they are real and their consequences are real÷and not too far away in time.

     RANGE: The entire history of the Forest Service is linked to grazing. You have said that public lands were overgrazed after World War I, but that in the latter part of the last century conditions improved. Now in times of great pressures, what would you tell a rancher? Stay the course?

     THOMAS: It depends on what their lifestyle means to them. I canât give you the results yet, but one of my graduate students is looking at the potential reactions of ranchers who hold public-grazing permits to proposals to ăbuy outä their permits. Believe me, their reactions could have some very significant and unforeseen consequences. But that is a story for another day. One of the things that emerges from this is why do people ranch? Basically, it doesnât make much economic sense. Several of my rancher friends are, on paper, millionaires many times over, but even with a schoolteacher wife, a rancherâs family is barely getting by. He ranches because thatâs who he is÷thatâs who his great grandpa, his grandpa and his pa were. Thatâs why he does it and he canât imagine doing anything else. Heâs the kind of guy who, if he won the lottery, would just keep ranching until the money ran out. But I donât think his kids think the same way.

     There are severe temptations to sell to developers or to take some other buyout. Those must be individual choices that need to be made in that same moral context I talked about before. We have long had programs that buy people out of production or pay people not to produce. But if we needed food we would make some changes÷and pretty quickly.

     Gifford Pinchot worked hard against the political tide to get itinerant sheep grazing under control. World War I came along and Congress turned around and poured the sheep right back in there. We did the same in World War II. Rules, even laws, can get changed pretty damn quickly when questions of survival come to the surface.

     RANGE: And so now, what about your own students. Do you leave them pessimistic? Are they the same as the last generation that seemed to despise people on the land?

     THOMAS: No, no. Iâm not a pessimist. My glass has always been half full. We live in a flexible and great nation that will make the adjustments we must make.

     However, optimistic professors in the realm of natural resources management deal with a student population that comes to us pretty gloomy about the state of affairs. They seemed stunned, and initially reluctant to believe, that we have incredible success stories to tell, and that ăwe ainât seen nothinâ yet.ä Our best days are yet to come. Iâve only been teaching for seven years, but my colleagues tell me that todayâs students are more positive in outlook and more willing to believe that there are national solutions to the problems we face in managing natural resources. I tell them how much I envy them in starting this new century with a chance to make a difference.

     The most important person in my youth was my grandmother÷all five feet of her. No matter what came to her in life, her response was, ăIt will be a great day in the morning!ä It took me many years to understand what she meant, because, sometimes, the next day was worse than the last. What she meant was simple. I learned something today. Tomorrow, I will have a chance to act on what I learned today. Therefore, there was always the promise of tomorrow. I have always believed it will be a great day in the morning. Many, if not most, of my students leave me with that thought. 

 

Tim Findley is the investigative reporter responsible for most of RANGEâs special reports.

 

Photos Courtesy Jack Ward Thomas

 

Jack Ward Thomas says that anybody dealing with natural resources is always dealing 

more with people than with other factors.

 

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