An unlikely revolutionary puts trees first

Mike Dombeck isn't the type of person who naturally attracts a lot of attention.

His manner is shy, sometimes painfully so. He's best described as calm, not charismatic. And his wardrobe is more Sears Roebuck than Ralph Lauren.

Not what you might expect of a revolutionary.

Mr. Dombeck is the chief of the US Forest Service, and since he took that position almost four years ago, he's done nothing less than reshape the storied agency. Long known as a close ally of the timber industry that harvested billions of board feet of trees from public lands, the Forest Service under Dombeck has become a more-cautious steward of American forests and the ecosystems they nurture.

In the process, he's become one of the most controversial officials in the Clinton administration, reviled by many Western lawmakers but lauded by environmentalists.

Now, his - and President Clinton's - forest legacy hangs in the balance, as the administration tries to keep loggers and the all-terrain vehicle industry from building roads into 43 million acres of virgin national forests.

For Dombeck, it's a proposal that encapsulates what he stands for: not compromising wildlife habitat or river corridors for logging rights. But for people whose livelihoods turn on timber, the Forest Service's about-face has made Dombeck as popular as the spotted owl.

Criticism is something he has gotten used to, but it still stings. He's been routinely lambasted in congressional hearings, and he's been blamed for closures of sawmills and loss of jobs. One conservative Western lawmaker even wrote a letter to Dombeck, calling him "offensive" and "delusional."

But true to his temperament, he refuses to retaliate.

"It may be unpleasant at times, but I wouldn't have it any other way," he says. "We live in a democracy, and that entitles our elected officials to speak their minds."

Dombeck's predecessor as Forest Service chief, Jack Ward Thomas, might not agree with his style, but he likes the results.

"I used to fight back, but he just lets them beat him up and says very little," Mr. Thomas says. "The funny thing is that if you're keeping score, they [the lawmakers assailing Dombeck] haven't won a battle yet."

To be sure, Dombeck's goals represent a major departure from the timber-driven agendas of many past Forest Service chiefs.

Prior to his arrival, the agency had cultivated a reputation not only as an agent of industrial logging, but also as the most ambitious road-builder in the world. It had carved more than 380,000 miles of roads - enough to reach the moon and back - into the nation's forest reserves, often to give private timber mills cheap access to big trees.

But in recent years, the road system had begun to fall into disrepair. Moreover, environmental studies have suggested that roads also cause destructive fragmentation of wildlife habitat and harm water quality in streams.

Dombeck saw this as a situation ripe for reform. During his tenure, he has:

*Developed a plan to thin 40 million acres of forests that are prone to "catastrophic" wildfire by using logging along with prescribed burning.

*Attempted to decouple federal incentives that allocate more money to local communities that cut more trees.

*Begun a process that requires each national forest to create a comprehensive transportation plan that prescribes what roads should be maintained and which should be obliterated to restore wildlife habitat.

*Instructed the agency to assess where off-road vehicles should be allowed and where "quiet trails" should be protected.

"He's come a long way in changing the direction of the behemoth that is the US Forest Service," says Ken Rait, executive director of the Heritage Forests Campaign, which comprises a coalition of conservation groups.

Already, some observers say he is - by far - the most environmentally progressive chief in Forest Service history.

"At heart and through his academic training, he is a soils and water guy, and they are the foundation of a healthy ecosystem," says Paul Hirt, a professor of environmental studies at Washington State University in Pullman.

Dombeck's interest in protecting America's land and water came from his working-class upbringing in Wisconsin. The product of a large family, he developed a love for hunting. A former fishing guide in his youth, Dombeck went on to get an advanced degree in the study of aquatic ecosystems.

"Mike is an old-fashioned, meat-and-potatoes conservationist," says Chris Wood, a senior aide to Dombeck and one of his closest confidants. "[He's] talking about trying to protect clean water ... and [ensuring] that any natural-resource extraction is done in an ecologically sustainable manner, which hasn't always been the case in the past."

Friends say it's no coincidence that Dombeck grew up in the same state where conservationist Aldo Leopold cast a long shadow. Leopold, a former wildlife biologist, is best known for penning "A Sand County Almanac," which half a century ago warned that humans need to do a better job of embracing the landscape.

"We need to focus on learning to live within the limits of the land," Dombeck says. "I try to encourage my staff to talk about what we leave on the forest rather than what we take from it."

Following a tour of burned forests in Montana with Dombeck this summer, US Sen. Max Baucus (D) had nothing but praise.

"It's been a while since I've heard someone in government speak as honestly and earnestly as he does," he says.

With little time remaining for the Clinton administration, Dombeck still has a full agenda.

He hopes to protect the last great stands of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, he would like to see more public lands set aside as federal wilderness, and he's readying himself for a possible showdown in Congress over proposals to turn loggers loose in "salvaging" trees burned during the current wildfire season.

But the roadless initiative is clearly the most important item. Currently, the plan is the subject of three lawsuits filed by resource-extraction groups and endorsed by several US lawmakers.

How the debate plays out could decide whether Dombeck is remembered as one of the great figures in American conservation history, says Mr. Rait.

"The litmus test is the fate of the national forest roadless policy, and whether he can deliver on the commitment made by President Clinton," he says. "We don't know the answer to that yet."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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