New Plan for America's National Forests

In announcement yesterday, US Forest Service chief sets new agenda for agency.

Smokey the Bear in stretch Lycra shorts?

Well, maybe not right away, but that image of the United States Forest Service's venerable mascot may be more in keeping with the future of the agency than the decades-old picture of a ranger-hatted, fire-fighting bruin.

Yesterday, in a message beamed via satellite to some 30,000 workers nationwide, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck said the agency intends to shift away from being synonymous with the timber industry toward a focus on providing recreation and clean water.

It is an attempt to craft a positive new image of national forests that will resonate with the public, observers say. But it is also a gambit prompted by an agency struggling for survival.

Once a storied institution defined by its woodsman-ranger hats, the Forest Service today is embattled and under attack from all sides. "We can sit back on our heels and react to the newest litigation, the latest court order, or the most recent legislative proposal," Mr. Dombeck said in yesterday's speech to the rank and file. "Or we can lead by example."

For Dombeck, the salvation of the Forest Service is not found in a futuristic credo of esprit de corps but in a century-old model enacted as a response to deforestation that had plundered the East's Appalachian Mountains: As Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot looked West and later enlisted Theodore Roosevelt in his cause of conservation, the idea of creating the agency was to ensure clean water in addition to making trees available for harvest.

All told, the Forest Service oversees the management of 192 million acres of public land spread across 155 national forests and grasslands from Puerto Rico to Alaska. Fully 30 percent of the federal land portfolio falls under Forest Service jurisdiction, most of it clustered between Colorado and California.

The logging question

Making clear his intent, Dombeck said logging will remain part of the Forest Service mission, dismissing calls from environmental groups to eliminate commercial logging in national forests altogether. But the days of massive clear-cuts and nonsustainable harvest levels are over in timber-dependent communities, he said.

"As long as our incentive system ties the production of commodities from national forests to funding needed services such as school and roads, state and county governments face increasing economic instability," he said.

Dombeck's initiative is certain to draw severe criticism from members of Congress, in particular lawmakers from Northwest states and Alaska, who have threatened to slash Forest Service funding unless the agency promises more trees.

After Dombeck last month proposed an agency moratorium on building new logging roads, Sens. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho and Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, joined US Reps. Helen Chenoweth (R) of Idaho and Don Young (R) of Alaska, chairman of the House Resources Committee, in promising fiscal retaliation.

"The national forests are being poorly served by the political appointees inside and outside the agency who often seem to be more concerned with partisan posturing and political correctness than with solving environmental problems as they really exist in the forests," Senator Murkowski said last week.

Seemingly unfazed by a potential political donnybrook, Dom-beck is attempting to do what none of his recent predecessors could: stand down timber interests that have dominated the Forest Service agenda for 30 years.

"Our job is to care for the land and serve people," Dombeck said to widespread praise from young Forest Service employees who have expressed concern about the direction of the agency. "On the lands we manage, this means complying with the laws that protect and help us to manage our natural-resource inheritance."

While it could be perceived as merely semantics, Forest Service observers say that Dombeck's mentioning of "caring for the land" first and "serving people" second illustrates his desire to make ecological restoration in blighted areas a priority.

Forest Service critics point out that in recent decades pollution to watersheds by logging, mining, and livestock grazing has become so serious that several species of fish have been added or are awaiting listing under the Endangered Species Act. Another imperative stems from the statistic that some 900 municipal watersheds that provide drinking water for millions of people originate in national forests.

As the Forest Service braces for annual recreational visitation that soon will pass the 1 billion mark, Chris Wood, one of Dombeck's senior aides, likens some of the agency's coming changes to Smokey shedding his woodsman's attire for mountain-biking shorts, an angler's vest, an off-road vehicle, and a wildlife photographer's camera.

Indeed, the new agency priority is to provide premier settings for recreation, ranging from downhill skiing and wilderness float trips to better campgrounds and hiking trails in national forests near urban areas. If managed wisely, officials say, recreational opportunities will become a new engine for local economies.

Perhaps most poignantly, Smokey's role as the consummate fighter of forest fires is in transition, too. One hundred years of fire suppression means that the Forest Service now has to deal with a "dense fuel load" - downed trees and brush that can catch fire relatively easily.

"Smokey may no longer be carrying a Pulaski [fire-fighting shovel] and an ax, the symbolic tools of a Forest Service firefighter," Mr. Wood says. "He may be carrying a drip torch to start fires instead."

Ensuring 'multiple use'

Wood adds that Dombeck's agenda, despite claims to the contrary, does not signal an end to the Forest Service's controversial and age-old mandate of "multiple use" - the practice of using a national forest for many purposes. Rather, Dombeck's agenda is a declaration that harmful resource-extraction activities of the past, which dominated the Forest Service's attention since the end of World War II, will be balanced against other public values.

Whether Dombeck can succeed depends largely upon the support he receives from the Clinton administration, which is seeking $120 million in new funding for watershed improvement, fish and wildlife enhancement, and road obliteration.

Last year, Dombeck replaced Jack Ward Thomas, a highly touted Forest Service ecologist hand-picked by President Clinton. Mr. Thomas resigned in disgust after just a few years at the helm, citing environmentalists' legal challenges and the budgetary stranglehold Congress exerted to maintain a higher volume of timber production.

"Jack Ward Thomas went down in flames because, although he had the right ideas and wanted to do the right thing, he didn't have enough help from within and outside the administration," an administration official said. "Dombeck has both, for now."

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