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A very hot potato.

Like a raccoon caught in the glare of a flashlight, Jeff DeBonis, 38, looks disarmingly harmless, smiling out of a coal-black night on Oregon's Willamette National Forest. In his loggers' boots, Levi's, and sky-blue Patagonia jacket, he's the kind of no-tricks, nothing-held-back guy you'd buy a plate of spaghetti for -as I did recently. Earlier that evening last summer, at the Forest Glen Cafe in Blue River, he had sat twirling his dinner on a fork, talking about sailing and wind surfing, backpacking and outdoor photography, a former girlfriend, an ex-wife.

The Forest Service timber-sale planner had met me in darkness on the banks of the deep-swirling McKenzie River, for good reason: He wasn't about to be interviewed or photographed during business hours. That's good judgment, considering he's probably under as close scrutiny as a forgiving and fatherly Forest Service might conceivably muster. DeBonis is a very hot potato. He'd just as soon avoid getting fired for conducting personal business on agency time.

Here is a GS-9 (moderately low-level) federal employee who has instant name recognition with the chief of the Forest Service. They correspond on a first-name basis. Here's a guy who has suddenly become as well known in the agency's various regional headquarters as he is along the McKenzie and at tiny, far-off duty stations like Espanola Ranger Station in northern New Mexico. A guy who inspires one Forest Service timber officer in northern California to volunteer in one breath, "I thought they had the grounds to fire him," and then to add thoughtfully in the next, "He may be ahead of his time."

HOW IT HAPPENED As Jeff explains during supper, "It went so fast-management was taken by surprise. "

He is describing a chain of events-certainly more tumbling-forward than cunningly strategized-that has made him the Forest Service's major (and probably only) gone public advocate for change from within. It is probably safe to say he's unprecedented.

Differentiating him from other would-be reformers is the fact that he has gone brazenly, startlingly, outside the Forest Service in his pleas for reform. But to do so, he has had to break a long-standing, unwritten pact within the agency.

"My first stirrings came in 1978," he recalls, "when I was a forester-trainee on the Kootenai National Forest out of Troy, Montana. We were clearcutting on steep slopes. We had erosion, washouts, culverts failing, heavy sediment coming down into trout fisheries. It reminded me of San Salvador, where I served in the Peace Corps from 1975 to 1977. But I was told it wasn't a problem. "

Linked with that concern was a management imperative" that concerned jeff just as gravely. "We were set up to produce timber outputs," he says. "The system rewarded those who met board-foot production targets. Later, on Idaho's Nez Perce National Forest, jeff attended environmental meetings and reported back to his superiors, who encouraged "free thinking." He liked that. I felt I was being listened to," he recalls. His concerns about overcutting were refueled when he was transferred to the Willamette in 1988. "Our last major storm here on the Willamette-a once-in-10-year event in the mid-'80s-caused damage similar to what I'd seen in Montana. And yet today we're logging on even steeper slopes, in more unstable soil. I think a 25-year storm could cause major damage on the west side of the Cascades," he says.

ANCIENT FORESTS Then there was the Ancient Forest Seminar he attended in Eugene early in 1989. In a two-page report to his superiors, he rather audaciously concluded, "We as an agency are perceived by the conservation community as being an advocate of the timber industry's agenda. . . . I believe this charge is true. It is time to start perceiving the conservation community as our allies ... in developing a strategy which will contribute to an ecologically sustainable lifestyle in the 21st century."

Needless to say, the report, which jeff distributed widely over the Forest Service's Data General "DG") computerized communications system, raised eyebrows. A copy somehow landed on the desk of A. Troy Reinhart, executive director of the Douglas Timber Operators, Inc. Sparks flew. (See "Sizing Up a Guerrilla," on page 31.)

No one knows how far Jeff's report traveled on the DG, but he claims that he received "probably 50 responses" over the same system. And his boss at the time, Acting District Ranger Hank Kashdan, was suddenly in the fray, drafting a response to Reinhart for Forest Supervisor Mike Kerrick, who was probably hoping for a low-profile, low heat solution.

And then there was jeff's eight page, single-spaced letter to Chief Forester Dale Robertson, laying out his views in paragraphs that sometimes attained 54 lines-quite a reading assignment for the chief.

Let's see. Attacking Forest Service policies from within. Using the DG for communicating personal opinions. Exercising free speech. Going directly to the Chief. "Going public" with an issue that many felt should be quietly handled within the agency. Billboarding the need for diversity of opinion within the Forest Service. Quite a stew DeBonis had brewed in just a few months.

Over a bowl of vanilla ice cream there in the cafe, jeff smiles more in innocence than in triumph.

"I was simply being honest," he says.

"Besides, most don't disagree with my opinions, but rather with my breaking a code of silence and going public. "

Meanwhile, the environmental community was taking quiet satisfaction, and Jeff's image as a "bad guy" was taking fast hold in the Oregon logging community.

And then came the adrenaline stage.

In March, jeff went off to a public meeting in Portland on old-growth.

"People there were saying, We keep talking, but nobody is doing anything. So I decided this was the time to find out what the Forest Service and other people were really thinking. "

He went to his hotel room, dashed off a flyer, had 300 copies printed, and placed them outside the meeting hall.

"I stood off to the side and watched. People would read it and look shell shocked. I got 200 responses, mostly by mail. "

And thus was born the so-called Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (AFSEEE), which calls for "management policies which reflect true stewardship and an ecologically sustainable economic base .. values of wildlife, fisheries, clean water, and aesthetics on at least an equal footing with commodity outputs, [promotion of] line officers based on their understanding and meeting the intent and spirit of our land stewardship laws ... instead of how well they get the cut out. "

jeff's word processor really warmed up now.

He sent Reinhart, the Douglas Timber Operators man, a bristling response letter (which on second thought he admitted was a bit of overkill). Jeff also fired off copies to his Forest Supervisor Mike Kerrick and-in a bold escalation-to the regional forester and U. S. Congressman.

"This wasn't comfortable at all-I was a noted radical,' " jeff reflects.

But that didn't stop him. Since then, with the help of contributions from Forest Service employees and others in 33 states, he has ...

Published two issues of AFSEEE's feisty newspaper, Inner Voice,-50,000 copies-sending bundles directly to ranger stations via UPS (with hopes they won't be trashed), and distributing thousands of additional copies to Forest Service retirees, friends, and networkers within and outside the agency.

Purchased an IBM-clone computer and WordPerfect software, and computerized the group's mailing lists.

Held a rather unconventional meeting of his new board of directors Forest Service present and former employees) in a one-hour conference call extending to Utah, Montana, New Mexico, and Oregon. * Acquired the cut-rate services of an Oregon attorney (a former Forest Service smokejumper). * Signed up 600 Forest Service employees and some 1,000 other supporters (including Forest Service retirees and people in other agencies) as members. * Received an award of merit from the Wilderness Society.


Meanwhile, at Willamette National Forest headquarters in Eugene 30 miles down the road, staff members have been tussling with some landmark questions about dissent from within, free speech, conflict of interest -on a surprisingly positive level while communicating rather openly, if not benevolently, with jeff .

Explains Forest Supervisor Mike Kerrick with remarkable patience, All this is a natural outgrowth of growing diversity within the Forest Service. We are, after all, trying to encourage change within the organization, and Jeff represents a very different view of change. "

Out of it all has come a most interesting Forest Service document: a three-page guideline called "Voicing Opinions: Inside and Outside the Workplace," which acknowledges the need for diversity as a means of building strength and meeting challenges, then outlines five ways that employees and management can "interact within the framework of the system. "

Interestingly, the guideline assigns most of the responsibility to managers, charging them with developing creative ways to share information, remain accessible, promote "professionally supportable" solutions, and so forth.

The guideline also poses some questions about employees exceeding "appropriate bounds." In other words, what they can legally be fired for.

The document is concise, helpful, readable.



Meanwhile, back at Blue River, jeff works four 10-hour days at his timbersale planning job, sleeps in his camper at Blue River during the week, then dashes home to Eugene for three days to pour heart, soul, and pocketbook into a cause he feels he shares with many.

As he spoons the last ice cream out of his dish, this folk hero of Forest Service dissent, who knows his job's on the line if he isn't careful, tries to share a grasp of the larger picture.

"The U.S. temperate rainforest there's only five, 10 percent of it left. It may remain ecologically functional if we stopped logging it right now. But we don't really know. And if we don't really know, we should back off. Nationwide, the loggers are into every nook and cranny. All you have to do [to see that] is to fly over the Cascades. "

Jeff," I ask, "what would you do about all this?"

His answer is simple.

"I'd drop the national cut by 50 percent for starters, to provide some breathing room. We'd do ecological studies, we'd thoroughly inventory to find out just where our old-growth forests are. We in the U.S. just can't meet environmental laws and produce the amount of timber that Congress has authorized. "

With that, Jeff disappears into the night, and the presses of inner Voice run at some distant location. FOREST SUPERVISORS ADD THEIR CONCERNS

At a November meeting near Tucson, 123 National Forest Supervisors from across the country told Forest Service Chief Dale Robertson that the agency is not fulfilling the land-stewardship commitment in its mission statement, "Caring for the Land and Serving People. " A memo by the supervisors in Regions 1 (Northern), 2 (Rocky Mountain), 3 (Southwest), and 4 (Intermountain) expressed concern that much of the public and many Forest Service employees no longer view the agency as a leader in natural-resources conservation.

This statement reflects a strong current for change within the agency and lends greater credibility to the efforts of others seeking change.

The memo recognizes changing values in the general public and among Forest Service employees. It also notes a significant cultural shift within the agency due to personnel changes: "New employees bring new values. Half of the supervisors will probably not be at a meeting like this in 1994, and about half of the supervisors here today were not at Snowbird" [the previous meeting about five years ago].

"I think we came away from this meeting with a good understanding," says Roberston. "I saw this as a sign of a healthy organization-we were willing to have straight talk. "

The memo from Regions 1, 2, 3, and 4 recognizes the complex political environment in which the agency operates, and the memo praises various leadership initiatives-such as the recreation strategy-that are improving communications and building new partnerships. It expresses a commitment by the supervisors to work with Chief Robertson to regain the agency's status as a leader in natural-resources conservation. The memo's focus, however, is a list of concerns and recommendations as to how action might begin. Some of the major concerns are contained in the following excerpts:

The Administration's program and Congressional annual appropriations still emphasize commodity programs. We are making progress in this area, as evidenced by the 1990 appropriations bill. * Our timber program has been 35 percent of the National Forest System (NFS) budget for the last 20 years while recreation, fish and wildlife, and soil and water have been two to three percent each.

* Past and present forest practices do not meet the high-quality land-management expectations of the public and our employees. For example-clearcutting, riparian management, water quality, and a large percentage of western rangelands are in poor condition after 80 years of management.

* We continue to maintain strong relationships with commodity groups, often at the expense of developing and improving relationships with other groups.-GERALDj. GRAY
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Jeff DeBonis, Forest Service timber-sale planner
Author:McLean, Herbert E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1990
Previous Article:A special camp for special kids.
Next Article:Negotiations.

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