End of an Era on the Monongahela National Forest

By Kent Karriker

On January 3, 2019, the era of Forest Supervisor Clyde Thompson on the Monongahela National Forest will come to a close.  Clyde is retiring after more than 40 years of federal service.  He has been the Forest Supervisor on the Monongahela for the last 16 years.  I worked for Clyde for 15 of those years, so I wanted to take a moment to pay tribute to my mentor.

Sixteen years is an extraordinarily long time for a Forest Supervisor to stay in one place. Many Supervisors stay in place for a few years, then move on to bigger and better things in the Senior Executive Service, or head into retirement after padding their “high three” average salary years.  But Clyde isn’t most supervisors.  He came to the Monongahela to accomplish things, and he stuck around to see those things through.

During Clyde’s tenure, the Forest revised its Forest Plan, received substantial new Wilderness designations, became a nation-wide leader in ecosystem restoration, and was the focus of epic battles over Blackwater Canyon and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.  Clyde is probably the most brilliant big-picture strategist that I’ve known in my career, and he made a major impact on the course of all these events, as well as many others that transpired on the Forest over the last decade and a half.

To the outside observer, those two big battles (Blackwater Canyon and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline) are probably the most obvious examples of Clyde’s strategic skill, as well as his determination to handle explosive issues in a way that is guided by facts and is fair to stakeholders.  In the Blackwater Canyon saga, Allegheny Wood Products tried to obtain a permit for use of the old railroad grade in Blackwater Canyon, which would have facilitated the company’s timber harvest and development plans for the canyon. Clyde piloted the Forest through a thorough environmental analysis, and, guided by science and the public interest, he ultimately did not grant the company the unfettered access that they had sought.  So far the pipeline has not had quite the same happy ending for environmental stakeholders, but without Clyde’s steady leadership under tremendous political pressure, I believe the outcome would have been much worse.

In my opinion, Clyde’s greatest achievements on the Monongahela were not the battles over difficult projects, but the efforts he lead to bring people together to achieve positive conservation outcomes.  The best examples are the revision of the Forest Plan and the subsequent implementation of the plan in a way that positioned the Forest as a national leader in ecosystem restoration.  While there was an element of conflict in both of these arenas, most of the real work consisted of many conversations that brought together varied interests to forge compromise solutions that worked for all of the stakeholders.  Clyde clearly loves engaging in these types of conversations, which he self-deprecatingly refers to as “happy talk.”

Results of these consensus-building efforts include a Forest Plan that has stood the test of time and a landscape-level restoration effort that has engaged both consumptive and non-consumptive users of the Forest.  While the restoration-focused management of the Forest has not satisfied everyone, it has demonstrated that active management can be conducted in a way that produces timber products while also healing the scars of past activities. Throughout the growth of the Monongahela’s restoration work, Clyde has always reminded stakeholders and Forest Service staff alike that although he expects the land to yield forest products, the ultimate point of the work is not what the agency takes off of the landscape, but what it leaves behind.  He has approached this work with a clear vision of the Forest’s role in building and maintaining a sustainable ecosystem and economy for West Virginia.

Of course the Highlands Conservancy has not always agreed with Clyde’s decisions and actions.  The National Forest is multiple use land, and sometimes the various stakeholders are just too far apart to reach a consensus.  But I think I can say that Clyde has always been fair toward the Highlands Conservancy and other stakeholders.  In reaching his decisions, Clyde was always thinking of what is best for the community, the long-term productivity of the land, and the “sense of place” that the natural landscape provides for those who live, work, and play here.  With his consistent focus on leaving the land in better shape than he found it, I can honestly say that Clyde has been much more of a friend to the conservation community than a foe.

Please join me in thanking Clyde for his years of service and wishing him the very best for his retirement!  We will certainly miss him.