Reshaping National Forest Policy

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 long-standing 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.

The confluence of science and environmental advocacy proved to be the downfall of the Forest Service’s timber-oriented policy. Change came first and most dramatically in the Pacific Northwest, when federal judge William Dwyer in 1989 and again in 1991 halted logging of old-growth forests in order to prevent extinction of the northern spotted owl. In 1993, President Clinton held a Forest Conference in Portland, Oregon, and directed a team of scientists, including Franklin and Thomas, to develop a “scientifically sound, ecologically credible, and legally responsible” plan to end the stalemate over the owl. A year later, the Clinton administration adopted the scientists’ Northwest Forest Plan, which established a system of old-growth reserves and greatly expanded stream buffers. Similar court challenges, scientific studies, and management plans occurred in other regions during the early 1990s.

The uproar over the spotted owl and the collapse of the Northwest timber program caused the Forest Service to modify its traditional multiple-use policy. In 1992, Chief Dale Robertson announced that the agency was adopting “ecosystem management” as its operating philosophy, emphasizing the value of all forest resources and the need to take an ecological approach to land management. The appointment of biologist Jack Ward Thomas as chief in 1994–the first time the Forest Service had ever been headed by anyone other than a forester or road engineer–presaged further changes in the Forest Service.

Meanwhile, Congress was unable to agree on legislative remedies to the Forest Service’s problems. The only significant national forest legislation enacted during this period of turmoil was the temporary “salvage rider” in 1995. That law directed the Forest Service to increase salvage logging of dead or diseased trees in the national forests and exempted salvage sales from all environmental laws during a 16-month “emergency” period. Congress also compelled the agency to complete timber sales in the Northwest that had been suspended or canceled due to endangered species conflicts.

The salvage rider threw gasoline on the flames of controversy over national forest management. Chief Thomas’s efforts to achieve positive science-based change were largely sidetracked by the thankless task of attempting to comply with the salvage rider. Thomas resigned in frustration in 1996, warning that the Forest Service’s survival was threatened by “demonization and politicization.”

Fish expert with a land ethic

Dombeck took over as chief less than a month after the salvage rider expired. With a Ph.D. in fisheries biology, Dombeck has brought a perspective and agenda to the Forest Service that are very different from those of past chiefs. He has made it clear that watershed protection and restoration, not timber production, will be the agency’s top priority.

What sets Dombeck apart as a visionary leader, though, is not his scientific expertise but his philosophical beliefs and his desire to put his beliefs into action. The land ethic of fellow Wisconsinite Aldo Leopold is at the root of Dombeck’s policies and motivations. He first read Leopold’s land conservation essays in A Sand County Almanac while attending graduate school. Dombeck now considers it to be “one of the most influential books about the relationship of people to their lands and waters,” and he often quotes from Leopold in his speeches and memoranda.

In his first appearance before Congress on February 25, 1997, Dombeck made it clear that he would be guided by the land ethic. The paramount goal of the Forest Service under his leadership would be “maintaining and restoring the health, diversity, and productivity of the land.” What really caught the attention of conservationists, though, were Dombeck’s remarks regarding management of “controversial” areas. Citing the recommendations of a forest health report commissioned by Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, Dombeck stated, “Until we rebuild [public] trust and strengthen those relationships, it is simply common sense that we avoid riparian, old growth, and roadless areas.”

The damaging effects of roads

Roadless area management has long been a lightning rod of controversy in the national forests. Roadless areas cover approximately 50 to 60 million acres, or about 25 to 30 percent of all land in the national forests, and another 35 million acres are congressionally designated wilderness. The rest of the national forests contain some 380,000 miles of roads, mostly built to access timber to be cut for sale. During the 1990s, Congress became increasingly reluctant to fund additional road construction because of public opposition to subsidized logging of public lands. In the summer of 1997, the U.S. House of Representatives came within one vote of slashing the Forest Service’s road construction budget. Numerous Forest Service research studies shed new light on the ecological values of roadless areas and the damaging effects of roads on water quality, fish habitat, and biological diversity.

Watershed protection and restoration, not timber production, will be the agency’s top priority.

Still, many observers were shocked when in January 1998, barely a year after starting his job, Dombeck proposed a moratorium on new roads in most national forest roadless areas. The moratorium was to be an 18-month “time out” while the Forest Service developed a comprehensive plan to deal with its road system. Although the roads moratorium would not officially take effect until early 1999, the Forest Service soon halted work on several controversial sales of timber from roadless areas in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and elsewhere. The moratorium catapulted Dombeck into the public spotlight, bringing editorial acclaim from New York to Los Angeles, along with harsh criticism in congressional oversight hearings.

The big question for Dombeck and the Clinton administration is what will happen once the roadless area moratorium expires in September 2000. There is substantial public and political support for permanent administrative protection of the roadless areas. Recent public opinion polls indicate that more than two-thirds of registered voters favor a long-term policy that protects roadless areas from road building and logging. In July 1999, 168 members of Congress signed a letter urging the administration to adopt such a policy.

One possible approach for Dombeck is to deal with the roadless areas through the agency’s overall road management strategy and local forest planning process. This may be the preferred tactic among Dombeck’s more conservative advisors, since it could leave considerable discretion and flexibility to agency managers to determine what level of protection is appropriate for particular roadless areas. However, it would leave the fate of the roadless areas very much in doubt, while ensuring continued controversy over the issue.

A better alternative is simply to establish a long-term policy that protects all national forest roadless areas from road building, logging, and other ecologically damaging activities. Under this scenario, the Forest Service would prepare a programmatic environmental impact statement for a nationwide roadless area management policy that would be adopted through federal regulation. This approach may engender more controversy in the short term, but it would provide much stronger protection for the roadless areas and resolve a major controversy in the national forests.

The roadless area issue gives Dombeck and the administration an historic opportunity to conserve 60 million acres of America’s finest public lands. Dombeck should follow up on his roadless area moratorium with a long-term protection policy for roadless areas.

Water comes first

Shortly after the roadless area moratorium announcement in early 1998, Dombeck laid out his broad goals and priorities for the national forests in A Natural Resource Agenda for the 21st Century. The agenda included four key areas: watershed health, sustainable forest management, forest roads, and recreation. Among the four, Dombeck made it clear that maintaining and restoring healthy watersheds was to be the agency’s first priority.

According to Dombeck, water is “the most valuable and least appreciated resource the National Forest System provides.” Indeed, more than 60 million people in 3,400 communities and 33 states obtain their drinking water from national forest lands. A University of California study of national forests in the Sierra Nevada mountains found that water was far more valuable than any other commodity resource. Dombeck’s view that watershed protection is the Forest Service’s most important duty is widely shared among the public. An opinion survey conducted by the University of Idaho in 1995 found that residents in the interior Pacific Northwest consider watershed protection to be the most important use of federal lands.

If the Forest Service does indeed give watersheds top billing in the coming years, that will be a major shift in the agency’s priorities. Although watershed protection was the main reason why national forests were originally established a century ago, it has played a minor role more recently. As Dombeck observed in a speech to the Outdoor Writers Association of America, “Over the past 50 years, the watershed purpose of the Forest Service has not been a co-equal partner with providing other resource uses such as timber production. In fact, watershed purposes were sometimes viewed as a ‘constraint’ to timber management.” Numerous scientific assessments have documented serious widespread impairment of watershed functions and aquatic habitats caused by the cumulative effects of logging, road building, grazing, mining, and other uses.

Forest Service watershed management should be guided by the principle of “protect the best and restore the rest.” Because roadless areas typically provide the ecological anchors for the healthiest watersheds, adopting a strong, long-term, roadless area policy is probably the single most important action the agency can take to protect high-quality watersheds. The next step will be to identify other relatively undisturbed watersheds with high ecological integrity to create the basis for a system of watershed conservation reserves.

Actively restoring the integrity of degraded watersheds throughout the national forests will likely be an expensive long-term undertaking. The essential starting point is to conduct interagency scientific assessments of multiple watersheds in order to determine causes of degradation, identify restoration needs, and prioritize potential restoration areas and activities. Effective restoration often will require the cooperation of other landowners in a watershed. Once a restoration plan is developed, the Forest Service will have to look to Congress, state governments, and others for funding.

The revision of forest plans could provide a good vehicle to achieve Dombeck’s watershed goals. Dombeck has repeatedly stated that watershed health and restoration will be the “overriding priorities” of all future forest plans. Current plans, which were adopted during the mid-1980s, generally give top billing to timber production and short shrift to watershed protection. This fall, the Forest Service expects to propose new regulations to guide the plan revisions. Dombeck should take advantage of this opportunity to ensure that the planning regulations fully reflect his policy direction and priorities regarding watersheds and that the new plans do more than just update the old timber-based plans.

Designating wilderness areas

In May 1999, Dombeck traveled to New Mexico to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Gila Wilderness, which was established through the efforts of Aldo Leopold while he was a young assistant district forester in Albuquerque. Dombeck said that the Wilderness Act of 1964 was his “personal favorite. It has a soul, an essence of hope, a simplicity and sense of connection.” Dombeck pledged that “wilderness will now enjoy a higher profile in national office issues.”

Presently, there are 34.7 million acres of congressionally designated wilderness areas in the national forests, or 18 percent of the National Forest System. The Forest Service has recommended wilderness designation for another 6.1 million acres. Because of congressional and administrative inaction, very little national forest wilderness has been designated or recommended since the mid-1980s, but Dombeck wants to change that. “The responsibility of the Forest Service is to identify those areas that are suitable for wilderness designation. We must take this responsibility seriously. For those forests undergoing forest plan revisions, I’ll say this: our wilderness portfolio must embody a broader array of lands–from prairie to old growth.”

Dombeck should follow up his roadless area moratorium with a nationwide roadless area management policy.

To his credit, Dombeck has begun to follow through on his wilderness objectives. Internally, he has formed a wilderness advisory group of Forest Service staff from all regions to improve training, public awareness, and funding of wilderness management. He has also taken the initiative in convening an interagency wilderness policy council to develop a common vision and management approaches regarding wilderness.

A significant test of Dombeck’s sincerity regarding future wilderness will come in his decisions on pending administrative appeals of four revised forest plans in Colorado and South Dakota. The four national forests contain a total of 1,388,000 acres of roadless areas, of which conservationists support 806,000 acres for wilderness designation. However, the revised forest plans recommend wilderness for only 8,551 acres–less than one percent of the roadless areas. The chief can show his agency and the public that he is serious about expanding the wilderness system by remanding these forest plans and insisting that they include adequate consideration and recommendation of new wilderness areas.

Recreational uses

Dombeck sees a bright future for the national forests and local economies in satisfying Americans’ insatiable appetite for quality recreation experiences. National forests receive more recreational use than any other federal land system, including national parks. Recreation in the national forests has grown steadily from 560 million recreational visits in 1980 to 860 million by 1996. The Forest Service estimates that national forest recreation contributes $97.8 billion to the economy, compared to just $3.5 billion from timber.

However, Dombeck has cautioned that the Forest Service will not allow continued growth in recreational use to compromise the health of the land. In February this year, Dombeck explained the essence of the recreation strategy he wants the agency to pursue: “Most Americans value public lands for the sense of open space, wildness and naturalness they provide, clean air and water, and wildlife and fish. Other uses, whether they are ski developments, mountain biking trails, or off-road vehicles have a place in our multiple use framework. But that place is reached only after we ensure that such activities do not, and will not, impair the productive capacity of the land.”

Off-road vehicles (ORVs) are an especially serious problem that Dombeck needs to address. Conflicts between nonmotorized recreationists (hikers, horse riders, and cross-country skiers) and motorized users (motorcyclers and snowmobilers) have escalated in recent years. The development of three- and four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles, along with larger and more powerful snowmobiles, has allowed ORV users to expand their cross-country routes and to scale steeper slopes. Ecological consequences include disruption of remote habitat for elk, wolverine, wolves, and other solitude-loving species, as well as soil erosion and stream siltation. Yet the Forest Service has generally shied away from cracking down on destructive ORV use. Indeed, in 1990 the agency relaxed its rules to accommodate larger ORVs on trails.

One way for Dombeck to deal firmly with the ORV issue is to adopt a regulation that national forest lands will be closed to ORV use except on designated routes. ORVs should be permitted only where the Forest Service can demonstrate that ORV use will do no harm to the natural values, wildlife, ecosystem function, and quality of experience for other recreationists. The chief clearly has the authority to institute such a policy under executive orders on ORVs issued in the 1970s.

The need for institutional reform

Perhaps Dombeck’s biggest challenge is to reorient an agency whose traditions, organizational culture, and incentives system favor commercial exploitation of national forest resources. For most of the past 50 years, the Forest Service’s foremost priority and source of funding has been logging and road building. During the 1990s, the Forest Service has sold only one-third as much timber as it did in the 1980s and 1970s, while recreation use has steadily grown in numbers and value. Yet many of the agency’s 30,000 employees still view the national forests primarily as a warehouse of timber and other commodities.

The Forest Service urgently needs a strong leader who is able to inspire the staff and communicate a favorable image to the public. For the past decade, the Forest Service has been buffeted by demands for reform and reductions in budgets and personnel. The number of agency employees fell by 15 percent between 1993 and 1997, largely in response to the decline in timber sales. Yet the public’s expectations and the agency’s workload have grown in other areas such as recreation management, watershed analysis, and wildlife monitoring, creating serious problems of overwork and burnout. Consequently, even Forest Service staff who are philosophically supportive of Dombeck’s agenda worry about the potential for additional “unfunded mandates” from their leader. They are watching–some hopefully, others skeptically–to see if Dombeck can deliver the personnel and funding necessary to carry out his agenda.

Dombeck has shown that he is willing to make significant personnel changes to move out the old guard in the agency. In his first two years as chief, he replaced all six deputy chiefs and seven of the nine regional foresters. He has made a concerted effort to bring more women, ethnic minorities, and biologists into leadership roles. The Timber Management division has been renamed the Forest Ecosystems division. Now he needs to take the time to go to the national forests to visit and meet with the rangers and specialists who are responsible for carrying out his agenda. Dombeck has been remarkably successful at communicating with the media and the public and gaining support from diverse interest groups. But he needs to do a better job of connecting with and inspiring his field staff.

Dombeck has also taken on the complex task of reforming the Forest Service’s timber-based system of incentives. During the agency’s big logging era, agency managers were rated principally on the basis of how successful they were in “getting out the cut”: the quantity of timber that was assigned annually to each region, national forest, and ranger district. On his first day as chief, Dombeck announced that every forest supervisor would have new performance measures for forest health, water quality, endangered species habitat, and other indicators of healthy ecosystems.

Far more daunting is the need to reform the agency’s financial incentives. A large chunk of the Forest Service’s annual budget is funded by a variety of trust funds and special accounts that rely exclusively on revenue from timber sales. Dombeck summed up the problem as follows at a meeting of Forest Service officials in fall 1998. “For many years, the Forest Service operated under a basic formula. The more trees we harvested, the more revenue we could bring into the organization, and the more people we could hire . . . [W]e could afford to finance the bulk of the organization on the back of the timber program.”

Not surprisingly, the management activities that have primarily benefited from timber revenues are logging and other resource utilization activities. An analysis of the Forest Service budget between 1980 and 1997 by Wilderness Society economist Carolyn Alkire shows that nearly half of the agency’s expenditures for resource-use activities has been funded through trust funds and special accounts. In contrast, virtually all funds for resource-protection activities, such as soil and wilderness management, have come from annual appropriations, which are subject to the vagaries of congressional priorities and whims.

Although clearly recognizing the problem of financial incentives, Dombeck has had little success in solving it thus far. He has proposed some administrative reforms, such as limiting the kinds of logging activities for which the salvage timber sale trust fund can be used. However, significant reform of the Forest Service’s internal financial incentives will depend on the willingness of Congress to appropriate more money for nontimber management activities.

Dombeck could force the administration and Congress to address the incentives issue by proposing an annual budget for the coming fiscal year that is entirely funded through appropriations. Dispensing with the traditional security of trust funds and special accounts would doubtless meet resistance from those in the agency who have benefited from off-budget financing. Still, bold action is appropriate and essential to eliminate a solidly entrenched incentive system that is blocking Dombeck’s efforts to achieve ecological sustainability in the national forests.

Dombeck’s second major challenge is to convince Congress to alter funding priorities from commodity extraction to environmental restoration. The timber industry has traditionally had considerable sway over the agency’s appropriations, and the recent decline in timber production from the national forests has happened in spite of continued generous funding of the timber program. However, Congress has become increasingly skeptical of appropriating money for new timber access roads, partly because of the realization that new roads will add to the Forest Service’s $8.5 billion backlog in road maintenance. In July 1999, the House voted for the first time to eliminate all funding for new timber access roads.

The challenge is to reorient an agency whose culture favors commercial exploitation of national forest resources.

Congress has also shown somewhat greater interest in funding restoration-oriented management. For example, funding for fire prevention activities such as prescribed burning and thinning of small trees has increased dramatically. This year’s Senate appropriations bill includes a new line item requested by the administration for forest ecosystem restoration and improvement. On the other hand, the Senate appropriations committee gave the Forest Service more money than it requested for timber sales, stating that “the Committee will continue to reject Administration requests designed to promote the downward spiral of the timber sales program.”

Probably the best hope for constructive congressional action in the short term is legislation to reform the system of national forest payments to counties. Since the early 1900s, the Forest Service has returned 25 percent of its receipts from timber sales and other management activities to county governments for roads and schools. As a consequence of the decline in logging on national forests, county payments have dropped substantially in recent years, prompting affected county officials to request congressional help. Legislation has been introduced that would restore county payments to historical levels, irrespective of timber sale receipts.

Environmentalists and the Clinton administration want to enact legislation that will permanently decouple county payments from Forest Service revenues. Decoupling would stabilize payments and eliminate the incentive for rural county and school officials to promote more logging. The timber industry and some county officials want to retain the link between logging and schools in order to maintain pressure on the Forest Service and to avoid reliance on annual congressional appropriations. However, the legislation could avoid the appropriations process and ensure stable funding by establishing a guaranteed entitlement trust fund in the Treasury, much as Congress did in 1993 to stabilize payments to counties in the Pacific Northwest affected by declining timber revenues.

Guided by a scientific perspective and a land ethic philosophy, Chief Dombeck has brought new priorities to the Forest Service. He has succeeded in communicating an ecologically sound vision for the national forests and a sense of purpose for his beleaguered agency. He has begun to build different, more broadly based constituencies and receive widespread public support for his policies. Dombeck still faces considerable obstacles to achieving his vision within the Forest Service and in Congress. But by remaining true to his values and taking advantage of key opportunities to gain public support, he may go down in history as one of America’s greatest conservationists.

Recommended Reading

  • Committee of Scientists, Sustaining the People’s Lands: Recommendations for Stewardship of the National Forests and Grasslands in the Next Century (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1999).
  • D. W. Floyd, ed., Forest of Discord: Options for Governing Our National Forests and Federal Public Lands (Bethesda, Md.: Society of American Foresters, 1999).
  • General Accounting Office, Forest Service Decision-making: A Framework for Improved Performance, GAO/RCED-97-71 (Washington, D.C.: General Accounting Office, 1997).
  • R. W. Gorte and M. L. Corn, The Forest Service Budget: Trust Funds and Special Accounts, CRS Report for Congress 97-14 ENR (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 1997).
  • Office of Technology Assessment, Forest Service Planning: Accommodating Uses, Producing Outputs and Sustaining Ecosystems, OTA-F-505 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Technology Assessment, 1992).
  • The Wilderness Society, America’s National Forests: A Vision for the Future (Washington, D.C.: The Wilderness Society, 1999).
  • J. E. Williams, C. A. Wood, and M. P. Dombeck, Watershed Restoration: Principles and Practices (Bethesda, Md.: American Fisheries Society, 1997).
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Cite this Article

Anderson, H. Michael. “Reshaping National Forest Policy.” Issues in Science and Technology 16, no. 1 (Fall 1999).

Vol. XVI, No. 1, Fall 1999