Jack Ward Thomas goes to Washington: the scientist made famous by the spotted owl becomes chief of the U.S. Forest Service.
Hollywood might cast Thomas as an old Roman Senator with his bearish build and big round head that has grown bald back to a fine garland of white hair, but he doesn't have the garrulous, wine-spilling personality. Some have even called him crusty, which I can see in his brusque replies to questions he doesn't want to answer, but otherwise he's straightforward, even philosophical in a country porch sort of way. He has a soft voice with a western flatness and a faint Texas twang from his younger days at Texas A&M. For the past 20 years he has been the Chief Wildlife Biologist at the Forest Service station in La Grange, Oregon, studying elk, deer, turkey, wildlife diseases and wildlife habitat management, which made him well known among local hunters, loggers, conservationists and scientists but no one else. Then he was assigned the northern spotted owl. In 1990, he led a small team that produced "The Thomas Plan," which ended the 1980s timber boom by recommending that eight million acres of forest be protected for the endangered bird. Last summer, he headed a team of 100 scientists and economists that prepared 10 options for President Clinton to choose from for his Northwest Forest Plan. For his work, he has received death threats, traveled with bodyguards to public meetings, and become the most famous wildlife biologist in the country.
The Forest Service manages 191 million acres of National Forest with over 36,000 employees and an annual budget of about $3.8 billion. So Thomas has much more on his hands than the owl. But the most important thing to know may be that he did not come easily to this job. His wife Margaret has terminal cancer. But she helped persuade him to do it. "The thing about Jack is, he has to have a challenge," she told Kathie Durbin of The Oregonian. After she's gone, she added, "He can work through his grief through his work... It's important to him and it's important to me."
E: How do you feel about coming into this job?
Thomas: I'm really surprised to be here. I never had any idea or any ambition to occupy this seat. But I'm excited. The era we're running into in natural resource management, despite all the screaming about, the Forest Service, is probably the most exciting, dynamic time in my 40-year career. I don't think these windows of opportunity for change come along but once in a generation. Being chief of the Forest Service is the most exciting place to sit in the most exciting time in 40 years.
In the past, somebody studied elk or the spotted owl or the marbled murrelet without having an idea of how it all fit together. Now we're seeing research that's not so much about individual species, but how they fit together in the larger scale. We call it "landscape ecology" or "conservation biology." And in the past, foresters who cut down trees would think about growing the next one or two generations. They wouldn't pay much attention to the longer term - or how that patch of cuts related to other ones. It was done piecemeal. Now we're looking at what we call "the cumulative effect" and thinking about "ecosystems" or "preserving biodiversity." When I headed the President's panel, we had to look at liverworts and lichens, slugs and bugs - all the things nobody ever paid much attention to before. My God, if you looked at them one at a time, you'd be at it into oblivion, so we have to look at the ecosystems.
Everyone thinks that Aido Leopold was the first one to have this idea: "To save every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering." But this idea appears in the ancient religious texts, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible. You can find it in the story of Noah's Ark. Life is precious.
In December, you sent a memo to your top staff with six principles: "Obey the law. Tell the truth. Implement ecosystem management. Development new knowledge, synthesize research, and apply it to management of natural resources. Build a Forest Service organization for the 21st century. Trust and make full use of our hard-working, expert workforce." Someone reading it might think this agency must have been in pretty bad shape.
When you've had a federal judge look at you and say there has been "...a deliberate and systematic refusal by the Forest Service...to comply with laws protecting wildlife...[and] a remarkable series of violations of the environmental laws," you pay attention. [Seattle District Court Judge William Dwyer made this statement in issuing an injunction in May 1991 that blocks logging in spotted owl habitat to this day. Thomas was a chief witness. ] But people forget that he also said, "This is not the doing of the scientists, foresters, rangers, and others at the working levels of these agencies. It reflects decisions made by higher authorities in the executive branch of the government."
I don't think the Forest Service has been running around telling lies, but I'm not so sure we've been telling the whole truth: What we know and what we don't. We have led people to believe that we're Big Daddy, trust us, we know best. We don't. All of our decisions involve risk - and we need to know what those are, and where we're still in the dark.
But I don't believe the memo necessarily means anybody was lying. It could just as well mean: "Continue doing what you're doing."
Former Chief Dale Robertson issued a gag order over employees so they couldn't talk to the press except through official channels. Will you rescind that order?
Robertson did not issue it. It came from the department, and it still exists. You have to have clearance to talk to the press.
Is that a good idea?
That's the policy.
Will you replace the regional foresters? At the Environmental Protection Agency, administrator Cami Browner has changed her regional administrators as a way of implementing new policies.
I could do that, but I don't intend to, at least not immediately. These people have been carrying out the directions they have been given. If we change direction, and they carry them out effectively, there's no problem. And that doesn't mean the previous instructions were wrong. A decade ago, we had a fairly tight consensus in Congress about what we were supposed to do. We are in the process of change now, but that doesn't make the people who carried out the program before evil people. The Forest Service is an old proud organization. It rallies to its leadership to carry out the missions assigned to it.
Is there a consensus in Congress now?
Oh no. I don't think there's any consensus among the entire American people about how we should manage public lands. But I'm not particularly depressed by it. If you're a historian and you look at these things, you see that we get into these periods of what I call chaos and turmoil and transition when suddenly we have to rethink everything. But people get tired of chaos after awhile and grow willing to reach a new consensus and proceed. This happens over and over in any democracy, no matter what the subject.
A great deal of scientific research has been done in the Northwest. Should it be done elsewhere?
One of the principles in the Forest Service all the way back to Gifford Pinchot, the founder, is that we should build our management on good science. But I think it's a mistake for people to think science solves problems. It merely contributes information that may be useful in the solution. There are no scientific decisions in a democracy, there are only moral decisions.
And science is never certain. There,'s no final answer. So scientists argue, and that upsets people. It doesn't upset us. That's what we do - argue, hypothesize, test, argue, hypothesize, test. Unfortunately, for all the people who talk about science, only one percent of the American people really understands this process.
Is the Forest Service comfortable with this process of science? I've heard of cases where a scientist issues a report which conflicts with a timber goal and the scientist gets punished for it.
Well, you may be calling people scientists that I don't. You may be talking about technical experts in applied science, not those who do science for a living, researching and testing hypotheses. I've probably developed more things in science - both in synthesis and in original research - that have changed the Forest Service than anybody. I've never been punished. One of the great strengths in the Forest Service is in our independent research division. God, nearly all the stuff that is in such huge controversy in the Northwest came out of Forest Service research.
But there has been a conflict between the scientific research and the Congressional demands for high timber cuts.
There has been tension. And it's an inevitable tension, particularly when new science conflicts with custom and the status quo. That's to be expected. I would be amazed if science told you something that would force you to change your life and you would immediately say, "Gee, wow, whatever!' No, we're not like that. Science makes people uncomfortable. They wanted to hang somebody for saying the world wasn't flat.
Will you miss being a research scientist out in the field?
I went through a lot of agony about agreeing to do this. My wife is ill. I was a senior scientist doing extremely exciting work and living in the most beautiful place on God's green Earth. I'd been there for 20 years, and I liked the country and the people. But, hell, I've made the decision. My very favorite philosopher, Satchel Paige, said, "Never look back, somethin' may be gainin' on you."