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Learning the lay of the land

Conservationist Mike Dombeck leaves nothing to interpretation when asked what concerns him about President Bush’s direction on public land management.

“There are lots of things,” said Dombeck, the only person to head both the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. “They ought to be concentrating on long-term conservation values.”

Instead, he claimed, the Bush administration is following a model of “man over nature,” and placing short-term economic gains above long-term health of public lands. The administration’s direction has set public land management practices back “15 to 20 years,” he charged.

He will detail those concerns and the steps he feels are necessary toward good land stewardship during The Sopris Foundation’s State of the World Conference, June 20-22 at The Aspen Institute’s Paepcke Auditorium. Dombeck is among several world-renowned speakers who will address everything from population growth to ski area development.

Other presenters at the conference are Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute; Stewart Udall, former congressman and interior secretary; and Robert Engelman, vice president for research at Population Action International.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Creative Ideas for a Threatened World.” Speakers on June 20 will focus on the State of the World. June 21 will feature discussions on the State of America, and the final day will center on the State of the West.

The Sopris Foundation, established by Old Snowmass resident John McBride and his family, emphasizes not only studying problems but also getting involved in practical ways to solve them.

Details about the conference are available at http://www.soprisfoundation.org. Registration is also available online.

Dombeck is credited with taking the Forest Service further into conservation mode with a land management philosophy that emphasized protecting the land’s health.

He was a lightning rod on two issues while he was the country’s top public land manager under President Clinton. He was praised by environmentalists and vilified by proponents of extractive industry for enacting policies to protect old-growth forests and roadless areas.

Dombeck headed the BLM from 1994 to 1997, then held the reins as chief of the Forest Service from 1997 until March 2001. He left the post shortly after Bush took office.

By July 2001, Bush reopened consideration of Dombeck’s initiative to close roadless areas. The issue is coming into play again as Congress discusses plans to aggressively thin forests to reduce the threat of wildfires. U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, a Colorado Republican, proposed legislation to streamline the Forest Service process for reviewing and approving logging projects.

McInnis’ bill has passed the House of Representatives and awaits action in the Senate.

Dombeck said he wholeheartedly supports the direction of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act as long as it includes two major conditions. Roadless areas and old-growth forests should remain protected from any logging, he said. If they aren’t, conservationists will scream and the benefits of the act will be lost in the resulting political fight.

The forest thinning should concentrate exclusively on the areas of greatest risk, he said, which are near homes and communities.

“We’ve got more work now than we can do for a couple of decades,” Dombeck said.

The policy of simply fighting big fires and not taking preventive action, such as thinning and controlled burning, is expensive and doesn’t work. He likened it to a person paying attention to their health only during visits to the emergency room.

“We need to be making investments beyond [fire] suppression,” Dombeck said.

If McInnis’ bill goes forward as it is now proposed, then it will further erode the trust that people have in the Forest Service and BLM, he predicted. Conservationists began to question every move made by the agencies during the 1970s and ’80s and often turned to the courts for relief. McInnis’ proposed legislation – which would limit both court actions and administrative appeals that could be filed with the Forest Service over logging projects – would do little to restore trust, Dombeck said.

The BLM lands that he once watched over are also facing major issues, with an unprecedented amount of proposed oil and gas development. Interior Secretary Gale Norton has also declared that no new BLM lands will be considered for wilderness designation if they weren’t already on an inventory deemed suitable for consideration.

Dombeck argued that it’s environmentally unwise to “wring every drop” of oil and gas out of public lands. There is a value to the nation of keeping lands untouched.

A person has only to look at the eastern United States to view the dangers facing the West. New Jersey, he noted, has run out of developable land.

He also sees water conservation looming as a major issue – and not just for the West, which suffered one of its worst recorded droughts last year. The United Nations has estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population will face significant water shortages in the next 25 years, he noted.

“The challenge for this century and maybe the millennium, around the world, is water,” according to Dombeck.

Colorado was in danger of taking a step in the wrong direction when it considered “logging for water” or thinning forests to increase the amount of runoff. In an opinion piece he wrote for The Denver Post, Dombeck wrote that the concept of logging to increase water yield would work only if 25 to 40 percent of national forests were continuously cut.

He countered that ugly scenario with data showing that intact, mature forests are better at providing water over the long haul.

Dombeck lamented he was never able to address what he considered a leading problem on public lands – the proliferation of off-road-vehicle use. While heading both agencies he regularly heard from his field staff that motorcycles, ATVs, snowmobiles and similar vehicles were creating problems ranging from noise to air quality to soil erosion.

“I’m not suggesting no off-road vehicle use at all,” he said. “It needs to be limited.”

Dombeck, who is now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, took a detailed look at the United State’s history in land stewardship in a book called “From Conquest to Conservation, Our Public Land Policy.” The book, co-authored with Christopher A. Wood and Jack E. Williams, will be available at the conference.

In the big picture, Dombeck feels the U.S. is “teetering” back and forth in the way it manages public land. At times, the country seems to understand and practice “ecosystem management,” the idea of managing land as an interconnected whole. But that’s not happening now.

Dombeck said the best thing that George W. Bush could have done was rely on his father for direction on land management. “He is dedicated to many of these values,” Dombeck said of the elder Bush.

Patricia Nelson Limerick, another of the speakers who will discuss the state of the West, said it isn’t inevitable that conservationists oppose Republican administrations. She noted that many of the country’s leading environmental laws, including acts protecting clean water and endangered species, were enacted under President Nixon.

The philosophy of Rogers Morton, the secretary of interior under Nixon, blends nicely with the approach of Bruce Babbitt, secretary under President Clinton, she noted.

“I think we lost the 1970s from our memory,” she said, stressing that Republican administrations have made environmental inroads. “It’s not like we have to go back to Teddy Roosevelt” to find examples.

Limerick is the chair of the board and faculty director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado. Her work in ethnic and environmental issues has added a different perspective to the study of American Western history.

Limerick said she benefited recently from studying and teaching with professors from Africa and the Middle East. Learning about tragic episodes in the history of those places has helped put U.S. environmental disputes into perspective.

She contends that Americans are better off than they believe. Although some national parks are facing monumental issues, at least Americans have national parks. Many tend to get demoralized because their expectations and ambitions are so high.

“[Conditions] just don’t look so good when you’re dreaming of utopia,” Limerick said.

She has been particularly intrigued lately with a program initiated in South Africa to deal with unjust actions there. The Commission on Truth and Reconciliation has been bringing together victims and perpetrators of everything from discrimination to murder.

Limerick believes it would be good for this country to face its demons from the settlement of the West with a similar commission. Most Americans deal with the unpleasant impacts from the conquest of the West by simply ignoring them, she said. But she believes greater examination is needed of the effects of Western expansion on American Indians, Mexicans and even nature. The possibilities are endless.

“One group’s prosperity makes another go to the bottom of the ladder,” Limerick said.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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