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SOURCE: New York Times, March 28, 2001
Urging Bush to Resist Pressure, Forest Chief Resigns
By DOUGLAS JEHL
|READ MORE ABOUT MIKE DOMBECK:|
|Articles from Angeles Volunteer Assoc. Newsletter|
|Statement, Jan. 4, 2001, "Roadless Area Conservation"|
WASHINGTON, March 27 In a letter of resignation, the chief of the Forest Service urged the Bush administration today to "withstand political pressure" and leave in place rules that would bar road building across some 60 million acres of federally owned land.
The chief, Michael P. Dombeck, was a primary architect of that plan and other conservation measures in a four-year tenure during which he led the agency through a time of tumultuous change.
Mr. Dombeck, a career Forest Service employee, decided to step down after Bush administration officials told him they wanted to move "in a different direction," said Chris Wood, a former top aide.
Still, Mr. Dombeck, 52, used his departure to defend not only the roadless policy but also other Clinton administration initiatives, like the protection of old-growth forests. Those plans set Mr. Dombeck at odds with mining and timber interests.
Virtually all these initiatives are under review by the Bush administration, which has said it will try to do more to promote development and conservation on public lands.
"Please remember that the decisions you make through your tenure will have implications that last many generations," Mr. Dombeck wrote to Ann M. Veneman, the agriculture secretary, who oversees the service.
Mr. Dombeck's announcement came three days before a federal court in Idaho is scheduled to hear the first of several legal challenges to the road rule, which was made final in January, during President Bill Clinton's last week in office.
In advance of the hearing, the new administration has chosen not to offer a substantive defense of the rule, and it has postponed its effective date for 60 days, until May 12, to allow further review.
The tactics have prompted speculation that the new administration might work with the plaintiffs, which include the State of Idaho and Boise Cascade, the timber company, to limit the effect of the rules, which would apply to nearly a third of national forest lands. In his resignation letter, Mr. Dombeck warned against such a course.
"Doing so," he wrote, "would undermine the most extensive multi year environmental analysis in history, a process that included over 600 public meetings and generated 1.6 million comments, the overwhelming majority of which supported protecting roadless areas."
The rules would ban road building and most timber cutting in the areas, but in practice their effect would reach much further, effectively barring most off-road vehicles and new oil, gas and mining operations.
Mr. Dombeck, a fisheries biologist by training, was the agency's 14th chief. He seemed mild-mannered in most appearances, but that only partly masked what admirers viewed as a commitment to conservation and critics saw as hostility to the agency's traditional management role.
During his tenure, Mr. Dombeck clashed often not just with timber and mining interests but with some Western Republicans, like Senator Larry E. Craig of Idaho, who as chairman of a major forest subcommittee has been one of the timber industry's most forthright defenders.
In a letter last July, Senator Craig accused Mr. Dombeck of being "arrogant" and "slightly delusional" for his outspoken advocacy of the roadless plan in the face of opposition from industry and Western states. In a statement, Senator Craig said of Mr. Dombeck that "We have not always agreed on policies developed for the national forests during the Clinton administration," but added that "I admire Mike's commitment to his principles and goals."
Environmentalists, for their part, praised Mr. Dombeck's policies.
"He was the first person to make the Forest Service realize its role as a conservation agency rather than a timber agency," said Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, a conservation group, which honored Mr. Dombeck at a reception in Washington earlier this month.
"I'm really saddened by the fact that he is leaving just as the new administration is failing to defend his roadless policy," Mr. Meadows said. "He was such a hero, and I think the entire Forest Service changed under his leadership, so I think it will be a huge loss."
But the Society of Professional Foresters, whose members include those employed by the forest products industry, has suggested that Mr. Dombeck had leaned too far in the direction of conservation.
A spokesman, Jeff Ghannam, said the group hoped the new administration "will select a leader who values the role forest management plays in ensuring the health and productivity of the nation's forests."
Mr. Dombeck's achievements in his four years included a 65 percent rise in the agency's budget, with most of the increase allocated to new efforts to help protect forests and communities against wildfires.
Mr. Dombeck also put the agency on a track to set as a formal goal the conservation of old-growth forests. Though he issued instructions in January to spell out that goal in a manual, the guidance remains unwritten and could be reversed by a new chief.
Among candidates to succeed him, administration and Congressional officials named several senior Forest Service employees, including Dale Bosworth, the regional forester in Montana, and Lyle Laverty, a former Montana regional forester who now directs the agency's fire plan.
As a career employee, Mr. Dombeck had been protected through May from reassignment by the new administration. But Mr. Wood, his former aide, said that Mr. Dombeck preferred to step down now and to retire altogether from the agency.
"The job of chief is too difficult for someone to serve as a place holder, and Dombeck wants to remain an advocate for conservation," Mr. Wood said.
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