Forest Service Chief Dombeck Comes out for Wilderness

Receives Standing Ovation at Wilderness 2000 Conference

By Jim Sconyers

Put a couple hundred wilderness activists in the same room with Mike Dombeck, chief of the U. S. Forest Service, and close the door. Watch for fireworks! This is exactly what happened at the Wilderness 2000 conference in Denver in September. Does that sound like a surefire formula for rancor and conflict? Amazingly, the scene was more like a love-fest than a confrontation. And the fireworks were those of joyful celebration, not sparks to burn the house down.

Never thought I’d see the day when hard-core environmental extremists (thank you, Cecil) fully dedicated to protecting and expanding the Wilderness Preservation System by millions of acres, would give a thunderous standing ovation to the leader of the most vilified agency of all, the Forest Service. But applaud they did, long and loud.

Why the warmth for Dombeck, whose predecessors were considered first cousins to the devil because of their perennial rejection of wildland values in America’s National Forests?

Because Dombeck has stuck his neck out, and laid it on the line. He believes fervently in protecting our national forest wildlands. He is passionate about expanding our Wilderness system while we still have something left to protect. He has said it over and over, and he said it again in Denver in no uncertain terms.

Does this mean we can all relax and "leave it to the experts?" Absolutely not – and Dombeck is the first to warn you against that. Why? Because one man is not a whole agency. Dombeck himself realizes the bigger problem: while he can evangelize for wilderness, and make policy, the rubber hits the road at the local level. As he himself emphasized, a new day for wilderness will only come as new beliefs and attitudes "trickle down" through management levels within the Forest Service bureaucracy, and we see real change on the ground, in the national forest in our own backyards.

That day has not come yet, and West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest is a good example. One day we will applaud the Mon’s decision makers, when they too come to value the people’s wildlands of which they are the custodians.