Bringing It All Back Home: An Interview With Mike Dombeck

Former U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck has returned to his native Wisconsin after boldly fighting the good fight in Washington (his admirers say). Now a professor with UW-Stevens Point and the UW System, Dombeck is ready to share his vision of environmental management and conservation at home and around the world.

[…read Mike Dombeck on the the conservation challenges we face in this century…]

by Erik Ness

(Wisconsin Academy Review, Winter 2002)


Mike Dombeck is giving me a hard time because I haven’t been fishing. It’s been a few months since we spent a comfortable September afternoon poking about the Wisconsin River near Stevens Point. He had just moved back to his home state but hadn’t unpacked enough boxes to pick up a fishing license, so he did the paddling while I worked the shoreline. It was a throwback moment for Dombeck, who last spring retired as chief of the U.S. Forest Service. At age 15 he began working as a fishing guide in northern Wisconsin. No doubt he was a good one; I caught my very first bass on the sixth cast.

“What’s bad?” I ask. “That I haven’t had the time, or that I haven’t gone fishing with what time I did have?”

“Probably both,” he laughs.

You could fairly argue that Wisconsin has already produced its quota of environmental leaders—John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Gaylord Nelson—it’s hard to imagine the face of conservation without these green giants. To that trio we may soon add Mike Dombeck. A central Wisconsin native, his family sold the farm when he was 9 and opened a store in the Chequamegon National Forest. He helped finance a degree in fisheries biology with his work, earning the nom de norte of Muskie Mike. Then the Forest Service called, and he and his young wife, Pat, were off to explore the country. The road ended for a time in Washington, where he first ran a national fisheries program, then got tapped to head the Bureau of Land Management, and finally, in 1997, the Forest Service.

Historically, the Forest Service had been seen as the province of miners, lumbermen, and ranchers, but as Americans grew more interested in outdoor recreation and more concerned about the environment, that culture was changing. As environmentalists racked up legislative victories, the resource industries found other interest groups at the table. Many conservationists give a lot of credit to Dombeck for helping solidify the place of recreation and environment in the resource equations. “What’s going on now is sort of a re-adjustment,” he says. “I think more than anything else today we’re seeing the value of large, unfragmented tracts of land, the open space.”

It’s not just rhetoric; under Dombeck the Forest Service acted to protect 58 million acres of land from the agency’s historical propensity for road-building. He also moved to protect old growth and to prohibit mining in parts of the Rocky Mountains.

Small wonder that conservationists generally regard him as a hero. “Plenty of people give Mike Dombeck the credit for changing the Forest Service from an agency that exists to smooth the way for the logging trucks into a protector of the natural world,” stated OnEarth, the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in its fall 2001 edition.

Not surprisingly, during his tenure Dombeck often clashed with timber and mining interests as well as some Republican representatives from western states who opposed his roadless plan.

The roadless proposal is currently under court injunction and may be dismantled by the Bush administration. Perhaps anticipating these changes, in his parting message to Forest Service rangers Dombeck wrote: “Follow your hearts and never allow your lives to be controlled by the desk-bound, those who equate a National Forest solely to board feet or barrels of oil.”

In other words, it was the same thing he was telling me—go fishing.

ERIK NESS: What’s your favorite fish story?

MIKE DOMBECK: I hope this doesn’t sound too hokey. My mother’s birthday is May 8. I remember getting a limit of beautiful walleyes—with her catching most of the fish. It happened to be Mother’s Day and her birthday, way back in 1974. We limited out in probably half an hour—caught the most fish and the biggest fish.

EN: Did you learn more about muskies as a fisheries biologist or as a fisherman?

MD: That’s a tough one. You learn the appreciation for what they are as an angler. Being outdoors—that’s where you develop the appreciation for what we have, for the resources, the water. As a biologist you get into the details of how things work. But I can remember talking to a dear old neighbor, an old fishing guide, Jess Ross. We were looking at the west fork of the Chippewa River, and the fisheries were at a low point at that time. Jess was a longtime guide and had never had a course in biology or ecology. “What do you think’s wrong?” I said to Jess. “Well, it’s out of balance,” he answered. He couldn’t have put it more succinctly, and these are the kinds of observations that people make when they are out in nature. It’s difficult to say whether one is more valuable than the other.

The other valuable lesson, from the standpoint of being a guide or a fisherman, is you begin to appreciate how important these resources are to other people. To see them connect with these resources and learn to love the land, love the lakes—all that occurs out in nature. In fact, many of the public debates that we have in natural resource management that occur in the statehouse in Madison or in Washington would be a lot easier if we had them right out here. I think we’ll find that people’s values are not that far apart. Once we take the conflict industry out of the debate, most people want to do the right thing for the land, and they are even willing to sacrifice economically if it’s the right thing for the long haul.

EN: Do you ever regret leaving behind a career as a field biologist?

MD: At times. But to see the intimate relationship of how national policy is connected to what’s on the land, and what we know about the land—bringing all of that together is really a tremendous challenge and an opportunity. In the U.S. we worry about whether to build a road or not, or whether to cut timber or not. The thing that we often fail to appreciate is that this is a democracy in action. It’s the reason that we have a House and a Senate and state houses for debate, for people to lay their ideas out, examine the data, and to disagree. It’s all part of what we do here. The other system is called a dictatorship. We don’t have to worry about decisions, we don’t have to worry about debate, and we probably don’t even have to worry about science in that kind of a system.

EN: You spent a lot of time moving around. How would you stay connected to the landscape and develop a sense of place?

MD: That’s easy. Spend a lot of time in the woods and on the water. When I was getting ready for a controversial hearing, it was sort of like a Ph.D. prelim. You could pore through briefing books like you were studying for a final exam, or you could go out in the field and look at stuff. I always found it was more valuable for me to spend time talking with employees, with research scientists. Whether the issue was old growth, fire, or recreation, being able to relay the stories about what you saw, that you were actually there talking to local people, was a much more effective way to communicate issues.

EN: What kind of landscape-level questions do you see us needing to deal with?

MD: The private lands where I grew up around the Chequamegon National Forest, they are virtually all posted. You’ve got to either belong to a hunting club or be a leaseholder. You just don’t walk anywhere, any time on private land. We’re forcing more and more people onto the public lands.

EN: Can you elaborate a little on the importance of roadless areas?

MD: From a business standpoint it’s a no-brainer. You have 386,000 miles of road, your budget has declined to the point that you’re maintaining only 20 percent of your roads to the environmental and safety standards for which they were designed, and you’ve got the landslide problems in the west and sedimentation into trout streams here. Would anybody build infrastructure while the infrastructure behind them was crumbling?

All of the timber sales that are proposed in roadless areas are very controversial and they’re very expensive, so from a cost-benefit point of view, the unit cost is almost double in a roadless area. I don’t know one industry CEO who would move forward with that level of controversy, with that level of expense, and with that kind of liability.

If you look at it from a biological view, our greatest diversity, our anchors for threatened and endangered and rare species, are in these areas, our greatest resistance to wildland fire is in these areas. The greatest resistance to one of the most vexing and significant problems of the next century—invasive and exotic species—is in these areas. The highest water quality—the list goes on and on of what the values of these areas are. It’s not really a difficult decision. Then you bring it home to a place like Wisconsin, where 79 percent of the 1.5 million acres of the Chequamegon and Nicolet national forests are within a quarter of a mile of a road. You’ve got to ask yourself: Do we really need more? By and large the anglers, the hunters, the outdoor enthusiasts overwhelmingly want their large, unfragmented tracts of land kept that way.

EN: When we talk about large environmental problems such as climate change, there often are conflict zones between public policy and the science. You’ve lived in this zone; how do you think we should bridge the gap?

MD: We need to talk a lot more about values than we do. About why it’s important to people. What is the spiritual value? Not just the economics of the situation, but the long-term benefits. We tend to focus on public debate in either the two-, four-, and six-year election cycles, and the bottom line currency in a democracy is the vote. But when you’re taking a look at landscapes like forests, we’re talking about decades and centuries. We’ve got the oldest trees in the world, the 3,000-year-old bristlecone pines of Joshua Tree, the redwoods and the sequoias.

With global climate change, we know a lot more than we give ourselves credit for. A single tree produces enough oxygen in a year for a family of four to breathe and sequesters anywhere from about 10 to maybe 30 or 40 pounds of carbon. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the more of these you have, the better they’re going to function and the more oxygen is going to be produced and the more CO2 will be extracted from the air.

We just need to step back and talk values, focus on education. Of the three or four natural resource problems that we have in the U.S. today, education is one of them. Education is getting more and more challenging because more and more people are growing up in large urban areas. Eighty percent of the people in the U.S. live in large metropolitan areas and big cities and towns. What opportunity are we giving these youngsters to connect to the land? You and I like to canoe and hike, but think of the hundreds of thousands of people who never really have that opportunity. And yet the water that they drink is just as dependent upon a healthy, functioning watershed and ecosystem.

EN: Following the events of September 11 there was a surge of support for energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Area and other places in the U.S. How do you think September 11 should inform our natural resource decision-making?

MD: We shouldn’t let things like this force us to make unwise natural resource decisions that have long-lasting impact. The land base of the Middle East is basically used up. Some of the unrest—which most people typically link to religious values is also linked to this poverty. There isn’t any topsoil. If you look at the wealth, it’s oil based. It’s not generated through agriculture or forestry. We need to protect our natural wealth. We’re in exceedingly super economic times, or at least we were in the 1990s. It’s when we’re not in good economic times that our conservation efforts are really going to payoff. Our quality of life is dependent on the quality of the land and the water.

EN: Anything else?

MD: When all is said and done, I’m still optimistic that people want to do the right thing. If anything, in resource management we’re spending too much time communicating in too complicated a manner. I was always amazed—particularly when I was at BLM [Bureau of Land Management], because of the arid landscapes that we managed, but even in the Forest Service—why more developers and real estate people aren’t just hammering on our door, demanding better watershed management. On so much of the land that they are making a living off of, the limiting factor is water: Scottsdale, San Diego, Las Vegas. You can go around the country and see limits. I have yet to have one land developer say, “You ought to do a better job [on watershed management].”

What that tells me is that we, as resource managers, are spending way too much time talking to ourselves, and also too much time talking about narrow issues and a lot of details rather than the big picture.


Copyright 2005 by Erik Ness

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