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No Retreat in Guarding the Forests

April 02, 2001

Mike Dombeck served barely four years as chief of the U.S. Forest Service, but he wrought remarkable change in the culture of the 35,000-employee agency. Gone at last is the old view of the national forests as the province of the timber, mining, petroleum and livestock industries for commercial exploitation.

Here finally, under Dombeck, was an agency in tune with at least the 20th century and the public need, acting as protector of the last old-growth forests, dwindling wildlife and watersheds and mountain meadows. Here was a modern agency that recognized recreation and the preservation of wilderness as higher and better uses of the nation's forests in an era of escalating population and relentless sprawl.

The question now is whether the Forest Service will continue in this enlightened direction under the Bush administration or revert to the giveaway of the people's resources. In an eloquent resignation letter, Dombeck appealed to Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, the agency's ultimate boss, to continue the new ethic of the Forest Service. We urge Veneman in the strongest possible terms to adopt this policy as her own and carry it forward.

Specifically, Veneman and President Bush should approve and defend the Dombeck/Clinton administration plan to preserve 58.5 million acres of forest in a roadless state. This means that no more roads could be built at federal expense to give private companies access to new logging areas. Foes of the plan picture this as keeping the companies from some inherent right to harvest the public estate. It's not that at all. There would be negligible impact on the supply of timber and the number of logging jobs.

Most of this land never would be developed commercially anyway because it's too hard to get to. Many of the 58.5 million acres were previously set aside for potential wilderness designation by Congress. These often are not gentle tree farms but rugged canyons and peaks. They contain little of value to the commercial exploiters.

But the value of the forests has soared in terms of recreation needs, species protection and water development. Dombeck noted to Veneman that the 21 million acres of national forest in California--Veneman's home state--amount to 20% of the state's area but produce half the state's water runoff. These critical watersheds must be protected.

Finally, the roadless initiative is not some sudden rule pushed through at the stroke of midnight by a departing Bill Clinton, as opponents claim. The proposal first surfaced in the 1970s roadless area studies and was exposed to extensive public comment and debate at more than 600 meetings throughout the country during 1999 and 2000.

In a sense, Dombeck finally achieved the goal set nearly a century ago when Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, declared that its purpose was to provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people over time. Indeed, the new service can provide healthy forests, clean water and recreation for millions of Americans for generations to come.

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