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As the president of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation from 1995 to 2016, Alaric Sample worked closely with the U.S. Forest Service leadership, including Jack Ward Thomas, who served as chief from 1993 to 1996. He offers his reflections on Chief Thomas’ leadership style. 

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Jack Thomas’ formal chief’s portrait. A political appointee, he admitted he was uncomfortable in his role as chief.

As a veteran of many campfires, Jack Ward Thomas knew how to spin a good yarn. One story that he loved to tell involved an Army helicopter sent to transport him from a wildfire incident command center to an airport and back to Washington. As a young lieutenant scurried under the helicopter’s still-rotating blades to escort Jack, with his white hair whipping wildly in the prop wash, Jack noticed the four stars on the aircraft’s door. It had not taken long for the Army to ascertain the equivalent rank of the chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

“I see you brought the general’s chopper for me,” shouted Jack over the roar of the engines. “No, sir,” replied the lieutenant, “that’s your copter, sir.” Sensing an opening, the lieutenant asked, “Sir, permission to speak candidly, sir?” Bemused, Jack immediately answered, “Sure, son, what’s on your mind?” At sharp attention and with a crisp salute, the lieutenant stated, “Sir, you need a haircut, sir.”

Jack Ward Thomas never asked to be chief of the Forest Service. He didn’t seek the position, and he accepted it only reluctantly when it was offered. His wife Margaret was terminally ill with cancer at the time and he felt that his place was at home with her in La Grande, Oregon. It was only after her urging that he agreed, and he assumed the job after Margaret’s passing.

Jack was essentially drafted into the job by Vice President Al Gore following the 1993 Northwest Forest Summit. Jack had led a team of scientists and forest managers in the development of a range of planning options to protect the habitat of the northern spotted owl, with each option carrying a different probability of the species’ long-term viability. Facing questioning by the president of the United States, the vice president, and several members of President Clinton’s cabinet, Jack was just Jack. His responses to their carefully crafted questions were short, direct, and candid to the point of being blunt.

The politicos were smitten. “Why isn’t this guy chief of the Forest Service?” Gore asked. In a matter of a few weeks, Jack was on his way to Washington to serve as the 13th chief.

Being chief didn’t change Jack’s frank and direct style. To the employees of the Forest Service his basic policy admonition was “Tell the truth, and obey the law.” In the dozens of congressional hearings for which he was called to testify, he had little patience for politicians’ grandstanding, posturing, and theatrical attacks on the integrity of the men and women of the U.S. Forest Service—and he wasn’t shy about showing it. He bruised more than a few egos on the Hill, but it earned him the loyalty and admiration of the thousands of Forest Service scientists and land managers that he so capably and honestly represented.

So it was all the more poignant when toward the end of his tenure as chief in 1996, Jack stepped to the podium at one of the infamous 6 AM “Chief’s Breakfast” gatherings at the Society of American Foresters annual meeting, and opened with the words, “I’m here to apologize to all of you, because I’ve failed you.” In that large and crowded room, one could have heard a pin drop. “I know very well why I was brought in as chief,” he continued, “and since I had never managed more than a 20-person research team before, I knew it wasn’t because of my administrative skills.”

Jack felt he had been tapped at a critical juncture in the history of the Forest Service to be a visionary leader, to be someone who could effectuate a transformation of the agency and help restore its century-old reputation as the nation’s leading forest conservation organization. But in 1995, Congress had enacted a “timber salvage rider” to make salvage sales on the national forests immune from legal or administrative challenge. The rider was attached to an important and time-sensitive appropriations bill, and President Clinton felt compelled to sign it. Thus began a period of what many in the environmental community characterized as “logging without laws.” It was suspected that more than a few old timber sales that had been halted under the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, or the Endangered Species Act were being repackaged as salvage sales and pushed ahead.

As a result, Jack observed, “every citizens group in the country had [Council of Environmental Quality director] Katy McGinty’s phone number on their speed dial.” Jack felt he had been expected to focus on the “blue sky,” the long-term, big-picture vision for the future of the national forests and the Forest Service. Instead he found himself summoned to the White House almost daily to personally review and approve or disapprove lists of individual salvage sales proposed under the terms of the timber salvage rider. And now, at the end of his term as chief, he felt he had never had the chance to articulate the inspiring vision that would carry this proud and capable agency into a successful future.

Presently the U.S. Forest Service is reviewing, evaluating, and revising the Northwest Forest Plan that Jack and the other members of the “Gang of Four” (and hundreds of agency staff) developed two decades ago. The changes taking place are a validation of the “adaptive management” approach they pioneered—taking actions, monitoring and evaluating the results, and then readjusting plans based on knowledge gained and “lessons learned.” The Forest Service and its multitude of stakeholders are gradually relinquishing their hold on old assumptions that forest ecosystems are stable and predictable, and embracing new models that acknowledge the variability of these ecosystems in response to human actions. Jack demonstrated that it was possible to provide strong and moral leadership, while still having the good sense to modify one’s prior views and adapt to new knowledge. His personal ethic became an organizational standard, and that will remain his legacy.

Jack served as chief of the Forest Service during three of the most tumultuous years in an agency whose century-long history is full of drama. As Jack mused near the end of his tenure, “Someone had to be the 13th chief, so I guess it was me.” In spite of his misgivings, Jack’s three years as chief were in fact a turning point for the agency. His unwavering commitment to ethical leadership was an inspiration to all who served under him or had the privilege of working with him. There are many young leaders in the Forest Service and beyond who benefit unknowingly from the high standard of professional integrity that Jack Ward Thomas demonstrated, even those who never had the privilege of reveling in one of Jack’s yarns around the campfire. 

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Jack Thomas on Shadow, in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, August 1996. He’d been going there for years with his friend Bill Brown while living in La Grande. After becoming chief, trips there provided escape from the pressures of the office.

 

The northern spotted owl: the bird that changed American forest history, and the life of Jack Ward Thomas. (Photo by Tom Iraci, US Forest Service)

The northern spotted owl: the bird that changed American forest history, and the life of Jack Ward Thomas. (Photo by Tom Iraci, US Forest Service)

Al Sample is a president emeritus of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation. You can learn more about Thomas on the Forest History Society’s U.S. Forest Service History website or by visiting Jack’s own website. You can read about Jack’s time as chief in his own words in The Journals of a Forest Service Chief.

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Jack Ward Thomas served as chief from 1994-1996. (FHS Photo)

Jack Ward Thomas served as chief from 1993-1996. (FHS Photo)

On May 26, 2016, Jack Ward Thomas lost his battle with cancer. Thomas started his U.S. Forest Service career as research wildlife biologist in 1966 and ended it in 1996 after serving for three years as Chief. Historian Char Miller offers this remembrance.

Jack Ward Thomas, the 13th Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, didn’t suffer fools gladly. That he managed to overlook my foolishness at Newark Airport is something of a minor miracle.

We were to have rendezvoused at that crazy-busy airport so that I could drive him to a symposium held at Grey Towers NHS, Gifford Pinchot’s former home in Milford, PA. This was shortly after President Bill Clinton had tapped Jack in 1993 to be the chief, and because the new chief had no interest in having law enforcement ferry him from place to place, someone on Jack’s staff had the bright idea that I’d make a fit chauffeur.

The driving part was simple; the connecting, not so much. We arrived at different terminals, at different times, and my ill-fated strategy was to pick up the rental car first and then meet Jack at the departures level. How I thought this was going to happen—I didn’t carry a cellphone, and knew enough to know that you couldn’t park in front of the terminal—is beyond me. As it was, it took me more than hour to break through the circling chaos of cars, taxis, and buses and locate a New Jersey State Police officer willing to let me illegally double park, despite his doubts: he had never heard of the Forest Service, let alone its chief, a consequence, perhaps, of the Garden State not having a national forest. In any event, I raced inside, found Jack, apologized profusely, and endured—well, let’s call it a sharp-edged, if bemused, stare.

Then we started to talk, a conversation that lasted for more than twenty years and only ended on May 26, with Jack’s death at age 81.

During that initial car ride, I mostly asked lots of questions; after our awkward introduction, how much more foolish did I wish to appear? Thankfully, Jack liked to talk, and he was by turns funny, insightful, and blunt. What I was most interested in was how and why he had been selected as chief. The president’s choice had been controversial inside the agency and beyond the Beltway, and I was curious about the transition. Not that I put it so directly, instead tiptoeing up to the issue: Jack was having none of that, asked me what I wanted to know, and over the next hour laid out who said what to whom and why. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, he had been keeping a detailed diary, an astonishing record that several years later he asked me to evaluate for its potential for publication. There, in rough form, was the basis for his incisive discussion that afternoon of the policy goals and political maneuverings that led to his becoming chief.

Once published, The Journals of a Forest Service Chief (2004) became the indispensable, insider’s guide to environmental politics in the Clinton Administration. Even more significantly, and why I continue to assign it in my U.S. public lands class, the book exposes the enduring tensions between the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court, much as Harold Ickes’ Secret Diaries (1953) did for the Roosevelt and Truman years. My students are as stunned by Jack’s revelations about DC power dynamics as they are moved by his emotional responses to such traumas as the deadly 1994 South Canyon fire in which 14 firefighters lost their lives. One moment stands out: while Jack talked to the grieving fire crew boss, and assured him that he “was not alone in this thing,” the firefighter “put his face in my chest, and when my arms encircled him, he began to sob uncontrollably, and so did I.” Jack wore his heart on his sleeve.

He was loyal to the core, too, as I discovered in 1995 after publishing a column urging the directors of federal land-management agencies to “come out swinging” in response to mounting right-wing attacks on them, some verbal, some violent. Within days, I received a lengthy, handwritten rebuttal from Jack: he understood my frustration but took umbrage at my suggestion that he and his colleagues were silent, that they did not have their employees’ backs. In taut prose, he outlined how wrong I was. Point taken.

His other writing was just as tight, just as pointed. That comes through loud and clear as you leaf through the three-volume set of his prose that the Boone & Crockett Club published in 2015: one contains Jack’s memoir-like reflections on his life and activism, another his experiences riding in the “high lonesome,” and the third is filled with hunting yarns from around the world. In print, he comes across as he did in the flesh: keen and curious, well and deeply read, self-assured. Jack did not tie himself, or his sentences, in knots.

Like this declarative insight, which he borrowed from botanist Frank Egler: “Ecosystems are not only more complex than we know, they are more complex than we can know.” That our knowledge will always be partial, incomplete, did not mean, as Jack stressed in speech after speech, that it was a mistake to expand our understanding of nature’s infinite variations. As a wildlife biologist he had spent a lifetime studying the impenetrable, and had loved every minute of it. Neither did he think that we should hesitate to revise our policies as new data emerged about the environment’s complexity; his tenure as chief was spent in good measure pressing the concept of ecosystem management into the Forest Service’s stewardship practices.

What Jack insisted on was that we not kid ourselves about our capacities. “Of all people,” he once argued, “scientists should be acutely aware that we know so little and that there is no final truth.” To believe otherwise was just plain foolish.

President Bill Clinton shakes hands with Chief Thomas. In the background, from left to right, are Brian Burke, Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture, Richard Bacon, Deputy Regional Forester of Region 1, and Dave Garber, forest supervisor of the Gallatin National Forest. The photo was taken in August 1996 in Yellowstone National Park.

President Bill Clinton shakes hands with Chief Thomas during a photo op in August 1996 in Yellowstone National Park. In the background, from left to right, are Brian Burke, Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture; Richard Bacon, Deputy Regional Forester of Region 1; and Dave Garber, forest supervisor of the Gallatin National Forest.

 

In this undated photo, Jack shows his playful side by hiding behind a sauguaro cactus.

In this undated photo from his time as chief, Jack shows his playful side by hiding behind a sauguaro cactus.

 

Thomas with Jim Lyons, Undersecretary of Agriculture, in the Eagle Cap Wilderness on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in August 1996. On occasion Jack brought along political leaders and others on his backcountry trips to show them the importance of wilderness.

Thomas with Jim Lyons, Undersecretary of Agriculture, in the Eagle Cap Wilderness on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in August 1996. On occasion Jack brought along political leaders and others on his backcountry trips to show them the importance of wilderness and “do a little politicking.”

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Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College and author of America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands. He wrote the foreword to Jack Ward Thomas’ Forks in the Trail (2015) and discussed his career in Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot (2013). You can learn more about Thomas on the Forest History Society’s U.S. Forest Service History website or by visiting Jack’s own website. You can read Chief Tom Tidwell’s reflections about Thomas’s impact on the Forest Service in this article by columnist Rick Landers of Spokane’s Spokesman-Review.

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On the 100th anniversary of the last log raft floated on the Upper Mississippi River, scholar and Aldo Leopold biographer Curt Meine reflects upon conservation efforts over the last century and the challenges that lay ahead.

This summer marks an obscure anniversary in the history of conservation. In August 1915 a large raft of white pine lumber was floated down the Upper Mississippi River from Hudson, Wisconsin, to Fort Madison, Iowa. For those on board and those watching from shore, it was a ceremonial occasion, an elegiac gesture. For decades, from Maine to western Ontario, white pine logs and lumber had been transported by water to downstream sawmills and rail towns. In northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan the cut crescendoed in the decades after the Civil War. At the peak of the industry in the 1880s, some 500 rafts of white pine came down the Mississippi each month.  But with the exhaustion of the “inexhaustible” pineries, there was no more big pine to float. The pine boom was over.

And so the lumbermen organized one last raft for nostalgia’s sake. The steamboat Ottumwa Belle, under Captain Walter Hunter, guided the raft around the great river’s bends.  At Albany, Illinois, it paused to take aboard 93-year-old Stephen Beck Hanks, famed riverman and cousin to Abraham Lincoln. In 1843 Hanks had guided the first raft of white pine logs downstream, from the St. Croix River pinery at Stillwater down to St. Louis. In the words of river historian Calvin Fremling, “Hanks has seen the whole thing—the beginning, the culmination, the end—all in one man’s lifetime.”

The Ottumwa Belle and lumber raft at Davenport, Iowa,  August 20, 1915   Source:  Putnam Museum, Davenport IA  http://www.umvphotoarchive.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/putnm/id/499/rec/8

The Ottumwa Belle and lumber raft at Davenport, Iowa, August 20, 1915
Source: Putnam Museum, Davenport, IA

As that final raft slipped downriver, it left in its symbolic wake a region of ruin: some 50 million acres of cutover and burned-over stump fields; soils sterilized by fire and eroded into gullies; streambeds and riverways altered by scouring and heavy sediment loads; disrupted and depleted fish and wildlife populations; a scattering of boom-and-bust work camps and abandoned lumber towns; and a legacy of concentrated wealth, political power, and corruption. The very landscape of unsustainability.

The story of the white pine was remarkable but not unique, even in its time. The lumber barons of the Midwest had their equivalents elsewhere:  yellow pine barons in the South; Douglas fir barons in the Northwest; wheat and cattle barons in the Plains; copper and iron barons in the upper Great Lakes; steel barons in the lower Great Lakes; coal barons in Appalachia and Illinois; gold and silver barons in the Rockies and California; oil barons in the newly tapped petroleum districts; and railroad barons tying them all together.

Across the continent the pattern repeated itself, varying by landscape and resource: the alienation and removal of Native American people; an advance wave of speculation and maneuvering; an onrush of hopeful opportunists; the manipulation of laws and courts; the recruitment of cheap, abundant labor; the winnowing of economic winners and losers; the consolidation of wealth into cartels; the channeling of that wealth into political power and authority; a compliant host of publicists and newspapers; the co-opting of the mechanisms of representative government.  And always the same legacy: degraded landscapes and exhausted sources of wealth; communities inflated by the booms and drained by the busts; citizens left to clean up the messes and to create more sustainable places and economies.

And, finally, always, the same question: can democracy find a way out of the crisis, right itself, reclaim some equilibrium between private wealth and commonwealth, between self-interest and the general welfare? Like the other booms, the pine boom yielded immediate prosperity, but at the price of destabilized and distorted ecosystems, social systems, and political systems. All too many of those who had reaped the quick profits had scant concern for the vitality and resilience of the forest (or prairie, or river, or range, or fishery) or the health of the democracy that provided their opportunity.  In the absence of economic self-restraint, social constraint became inevitable. In the face of crisis, there was no alternative.  Reckless economics and devastated landscapes will do that to an ideology.

White pine stump and seedlings, Vilas County, Wisconsin. (Photo by author)

White pine stump and seedlings, Vilas County, Wisconsin. (Photo by author)

Now, as the full scope of the climate crisis becomes evident, the question arises again: Can democracy respond? The story of the white pine offers some hope. As the big pine (and redwoods, and passenger pigeons, and bison) dwindled, reformers of varied political backgrounds and stripes found common cause and enacted reforms. We called it conservation. Over time the forests of the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes returned as the soils, waters, plants, and animals went about their collective work of self-renewal. That recovery continues, more than a century after the Great Cut. The region has hardly achieved sustainability. There is always some short-term economic fix, some new scheme to begin yet another round of heedless exploitation of the waters, the minerals, the forest. Yet, starting a century ago, citizens overcame political inertia in a way that made long-term positive change possible, and inaugurated the modern search for what George Perkins Marsh called “a wise economy.”

Climate disruption, though, is a crisis of a different order and magnitude. It is not local or regional in scope, but global. It is a crisis, not of a certain stage or kind of economy, but of the entire fossil-fuel-dependent meta-economy that spans the globe, that has been expanding since the dawn of the industrial age, and that actively resists envisioning alternatives to its own continued domination. The resulting concentration of wealth now flows directly toward unprecedented political power. Especially in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, that power has few institutional checks on its momentum or direction. The climate crisis and the democracy crisis are now two names for the same thing.

Just as the Ottumwa Belle’s historic journey signified change in its time, indicators of transformation mark our moment: activists gathering by the thousands to speak out against the epic exploitation of Canada’s tar sands; Pope Francis releasing his encyclical Laudato Si’, defining a moral imperative in the Catholic tradition to conserve “our common home”; international climate policy negotiators making plans to gather in Paris later this year; presidential candidates calibrating their messages and calculating their impact. All, in their way, reveal that the fate of our democracy and the future of our climate are inseparable. If there is any positive side to all this, it is that as we work to address the one, we must inevitably deal with the other.

Curt Meine is senior fellow with the Center for Humans and Nature and the Aldo Leopold Foundation, research associate with the International Crane Foundation, and associate adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is editor of the Library of America collection Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation (2013). This essay is a contribution to the Center for Humans and Nature’s “Questions for a Resilient Future” series, “Can democracy in crisis deal with the climate crisis?”

Sources

Blair, Walter A.  A Raft Pilot’s Log:  A History of the Great Rafting Industry on the Upper Mississippi, 1840-1915 (Cleveland:  Arthur H. Clark Company, 1930).

Fremling, Calvin R.  Immortal River:  The Upper Mississippi in Ancient and Modern Times (Madison:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2005).

Jones, Joseph J. “Transforming the Cutover article: The Establishment of National Forests in Northern Michigan,” Forest History Today 17 (Spring/Fall 2011): 48-55.

“Last Raft Leaves Hudson.”  Duluth Evening Herald (23 August 1915).

Marsh, George Perkins. Man and Nature or, The Earth as Modified by Human Action.  2003 edition by David Lowenthal, with a new introduction by David Lowenthal and a forward by William Cronon (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2003).

Upper Mississippi Valley Digital Image Archive.  Putnam Museum.  Davenport, Iowa.  http://www.umvphotoarchive.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/putnm

Williams, Michael.  Americans and Their Forests:  A Historical Geography (Cambridge, U.K.:  Cambridge University Press, 1992).

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