Environmentalists who once praised Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas are now celebrating his departure to become a University of Montana professor.
Ironically the timber industry, which initially feared Thomas’ ascension from research wildlife biologist to agency chief, ended up liking him.
Neither side anticipates being happy with Thomas’ successor if Bill Clinton returns to the White House.
“We don’t anticipate a Clinton appointee to the head of the Forest Service that we’re going to find favorable,” said Joe Hinson, executive vice president of the Intermountain Forestry Industry Association.
Thomas held a press conference Wednesday to say he was stepping down after three years as Forest Service chief. “I look forward to returning to the West,” Thomas said. “That’s where my heart is.”
He immediately boarded a plane for a 10-day elk hunting trip in an undisclosed location.
For once, Hinson and Barry Rosenberg of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council agree. “I don’t have any hope that if Clinton is re-elected, that a decent chief of the Forest Service will be selected,” Rosenberg said of Thomas’ departure.
Environmentalists, who had high hopes for a wildlife biologist running the Forest Service, angrily vilify the man. Thomas and Assistant Agricultural Secretary Jim Lyons echoed and endorsed the “industry’s bogus forest health program,” said Rosenberg.
They focused on cutting more trees instead of the devastation to fish, watersheds and wildlife from a legacy of overcutting, he said. “As a result, things were worse off under the Thomas regime than anytime in the 15 years I’ve worked on forest issues.”
Still, it’s important to look beyond Thomas and realize he worked for people beholden to corporate interests, Rosenberg said.
Paul Hirt, a historian at Washington State University, said the environmental community may have expected too much from Thomas. “Poor Jack Ward Thomas had to live and work in a political environment and therefore nothing he did was right from an environmental perspective,” Hirt said.
“If environmentalists have a cultural flaw, it’s that they are too optimistic, they envision possibilities that are beyond the grasp of our political system,” Hirt said. “But I’m not sure that’s all bad.”
Hinson and industry are more charitable. Thomas hardly was a lackey of industry considering timber harvests on national forests have fallen so dramatically, Hinson said.
“I think we were somewhat pleased to see Jack Ward Thomas be honest about those challenges (of running the Forest Service) and say to Congress, ‘Look, it’s impossible to do this,”’ Hinson said.
Thomas’ departure is a small part of the picture. The more important question is what’s going to happen to the Forest Service, Hinson said. Congress is going to have to revisit the question of whether selling timber is going to be a part of national forest management. If it is, Congress will then have to change the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Forest Management Act, Hinson said.
Thomas started as a wildlife manager and researcher for the Texas Game and Fish Commission in 1957. He was director of the Forest Service’s Blue Mountain Research Lab in La Grande, Ore., in 1990 when he was picked to lead a team of scientists formulating a spotted owl recovery plan. That made him a household name in Pacific Northwest logging communities.
When President Clinton selected Thomas as the 13th chief in 1993, it was the first time a career agency engineer or timber harvester didn’t have the top Forest Service job. While U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, expressed disappointment at Thomas’ departure, he also doesn’t want another non-forester running the agency.
“This administration should return to tradition and choose the next Forest Service chief from the ranks of the forestry professionals in the Forest Service,” Craig said.
“I can assure the current administration I’ll be watching closely,” he said.
Thomas said he will be working with the administration to identify a successor before he leaves in mid-November.
Robert E. Wolf, a forester and retired Congressional Research Service official, said Thomas was tired of getting pounded from all sides. “I had the feeling he felt generally frustrated by what Congress had done as well as the administration,” Wolf said.
In addition, “as a research scientist, he had a great deal of latitude and when he became chief he had hearing committees and appropriation committees looking over his shoulder,” Wolf said.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Possible successors Names being mentioned as possible replacements for retiring U.S. Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas include: Mike Dombeck, acting director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management since February 1994. A former fisheries biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, he has come into conflict with Western conservatives by promoting grazing reforms. Hal Salwasser, northern Rockies regional forester for the Forest Service in Missoula. He previously held the wildlife professorship Thomas is taking over at the University of Montana. He headed the Forest Service’s New Perspectives program promoting new forestry techniques and was deputy director of wildlife and fisheries. He holds a doctorate in wildland resource science from the University of California at Berkeley. Adela Backiel, considered a long shot because she never worked for the Forest Service. She works in the office of sustainable development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is a former deputy to Agriculture Undersecretary Jim Lyons, who oversees the Forest Service. Jeff Sirmon, retired deputy chief of the Forest Service for international forestry and programs and legislation. He was Northwest regional forester from 1981-85. He does leadership seminars for the Pinchot Institute of Conservation. Tom Tuchmann, director of the Office of Forestry and Economic Assistance in Portland. He has been President Clinton’s point man on Northwest forest policy. -Associated Press
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