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Both Sides Wary Of Tough-Talking New Forest Chief After Six Months In Job, Little Action Seen From Dombeck

Scott Sonner Associated Press

Environmentalists are afraid new Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck won’t follow through on his tough talk about reforming U.S. logging policies on national forests.

Timber industry leaders are afraid he will.

“Talk is cheap in this town,” said Mike Francis, national forests director for The Wilderness Society.

“He is saying some of the right things. The question is, does he have the strength and the resolve and the real support of the White House to be able to make the changes?”

Dombeck, a fisheries biologist from Wisconsin, took over in January as chief of the politically charged agency that acts as the world’s largest land manager, with 191 million acres of national forest.

In his first day on the job, he told about 500 Forest Service workers: “We must maintain healthy, diverse and productive ecosystems. … We cannot meet the needs of the people if we do not first conserve and restore the health of the land.”

“Failing this, nothing else we do really matters,” he said Jan. 6.

Six months later, Dombeck says he’s learned a lot of lessons about the task he faces, and about internal resistance to change.

“I am not one who thinks it is going to be easy,” he said in a recent interview. “We certainly have gotten beyond the level of gridlock we had in the 1980s and early 1990s. … But I’m not enough of a Pollyanna to think there will ever be total agreement where everybody is fat and happy and smiling.”

Dombeck succeeded Jack Ward Thomas, who resigned last fall partly out of frustration over political pressures within the Clinton administration and on Capitol Hill.

Thomas was the first wildlife biologist to head the agency. Most of his predecessors were career foresters or administrators who emphasized logging over other national forest uses.

Environmentalists cheered Thomas’ appointment because of his role on government panels that had warned the northern spotted owl probably would become extinct if logging practices of the 1980s continued.

But the longer Thomas worked for compromises to scale back logging levels, the more alienated he became from the conservation constituency that claimed credit for helping elect President Clinton.

Dombeck has toughened his rhetoric in recent weeks, making more pointed comments about the ecological damage caused by logging on steep slopes and in fragile watersheds, and emphasizing the need to prevent logging of roadless areas as much as possible.

He told a group of outdoor writers in Florida that timber production will remain an important use of national forests, “but we cannot allow production to diminish the land’s productive capacity.”

Critics in the environmental community say Dombeck’s been all talk and little action. Logging continues in roadless areas and old-growth groves, especially in the Northern Rocky Mountains.

“It is a sharper message but we think it’s just talk,” said Ron Mitchell, director of the Idaho Sporting Congress in Boise. The group is suing to block logging of a 77,000-acre roadless area of the Payette National Forest.

Dombeck recently told Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, that “he senses some support in the agency for his efforts to move it back to where it might be considered a world-class conservation agency,” Francis said.

Timber industry officials are quietly critical of Dombeck. But they are reluctant to bad-mouth him publicly, hoping they may still be able to work with him.

On Capitol Hill, Dombeck has come under fire from Western Republicans who want more logging on national forests. He has rejected their calls to rewrite national forest management laws, saying administrative streamlining of environmental reviews and increased emphasis on field work are the key.

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