Saturday, September 7, 2019

A bear bayed by dogs

Happy birthday Jack Ward Thomas - 85 today. A wildlife research biologist, conservationist and professor, Thomas rose to the giddy political heights of being chief of the US Forest Service during the Bill Clinton administration. He was particularly embroiled in political disputes over the demise of the northern spotted owl, the Endangered Species Act, and the preservation of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. For about a dozen years, including those when he was serving as chief of the forest service, he kept detailed, if sporadic, diary entries - later published in several volumes. In one diary entry he confesses that he feels ‘terribly out of place’, and writes, ‘A remark came back to me that one of the industry lawyers made. He said I reminded him of a grizzly bear bayed by dogs: angry, puzzled, and frightened.’

Thomas was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on 7 September 1934. He studied wildlife management at Texas A&M University, with higher degrees in wildlife ecology from West Virginia University (1969) and forestry (natural resources planning) from the University of Massachusetts (1972). He began his working life with the Texas Game and Fish Commission in the late 1950s, moving, in 1966, to join the Forest Service in Morgantown as a research wildlife biologist; then in 1969 he joined the Urban Forestry and Wildlife Research Unit at Amhurst. In 1974, he became the chief research wildlife biologist and project leader at the Blue Mountains Research Lab in La Grande, Oregon.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Thomas became increasingly involved in both research and politics related to the northern spotted owl, the Endangered Species Act, and old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. In the spring of 1993, in the wake of the President Clinton Forest Conference in Portland, Thomas was named to head the Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team (FEMAT) with the aim of resolving the spotted owl crises. In December that year, he was appointed Chief of the U.S. Forest Service despite opposition from some environmental groups, the timber industry, and many of the old-guard agency personnel. The following year, he responded to the death of 34 fire fighters by significantly improving woodland fire safety procedures. 

Thomas stepped down from the political position in 1996, accepting a position at the University of Montana as professor of wildlife conservation, only retiring in 2005. He has been responsible for many hundreds of publications: whole books, chapters in books, essays etc on elk, deer, and turkey biology; wildlife habitat; songbird ecology; northern spotted owl management; forestry and land-use planning. Further (limited) biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, Jack Ward Thomas website, or the Forest History Society (and its blog).

Off and on between 1986 and 1999 Thomas kept a diary. A selection of entries written while he was chief of the forest service - 1993-1996 - was published in 2004 by the Forest History Society in association with The University of Washington Press as Jack Ward Thomas: The Journals of a Forest Service Chief. Some pages of this can be previewed at Googlebooks. Further selections of his diary entries were published more recently, in 2015, by the Boone & Crockett Club. Excerpts from 
Wilderness Journals: Wandering the High Lonesome can be previewed at Boone & Crockett and at Amazon.

Here are three of Thomas’s diary entries from The Journals of a Forest Service Chief.

30 August 1990, [in camp. Eagle Cap Wilderness Area, Oregon]
‘On the eve of my departure for the Eagle Caps, I was working late in my office clearing my desk and leaving instructions for work to be done in my absence. At 7:00 p.m. Pacific time (10:00 p.m. Eastern time), Undersecretary Jim Moseley called. I could tell from his voice, which was tired and dispirited, that the call was not good news. Moseley wanted me to hear the news from him and not from some newshound with the freshly leaked story.

The working group has recommended to Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter to go with the ISC report with an allowable cut of 3.0 billion board feet [bbf] for Forest Service lands in 1991, scaling down to 2.7 to 2.6 in subsequent years. Secretary Yeutter was in agreement. However, when they took it to the White House, something (Moseley doesn’t know what) went wrong. The president’s chief of staff, John Sununu, was in the Soviet Union giving advice on how to organize the Soviet premier’s office. So Sununu (who has been perceived as the big, bad “booger” who will eat everybody alive if they go with the ISC report) was not present. Interior Secretary Lujan was evidently the stumbling block, saying things like “no bunch of biologists are going to determine policy for the United States government.” That is understandable - he will look very bad if the ISC report is adopted now, after he let Jamison convince him that there was “new or better science” or “other experts” who had devised a “better way.” To adopt the ISC report now is to have to eat those words, and he simply doesn’t have the stomach for it.

It now looks as if the train wreck proponents have carried the day. The timber cut level being proposed is an annual cut of 3.7 to 4.2 bbf and you sacrifice the number of habitat conservation areas necessary to hold the cut level. They will ask Congress for “sufficiency language” to preclude the environmentalists from challenging the decision in the courts. That will, if Congress approves, have the effect of declaring that whatever is prescribed will, de facto, provide adequate protection to the spotted owl and that is that - problem solved.

I had listened quietly to this point and now I began to speak quietly and calmly though my chest was tight. I said that we would expect to see our committee in front of Congress within ten days and there was no way we could support that decision. At that point, we would have to follow the dictates of our profession, which would lead us into direct conflict with the administration. Truly, we must say in the manner of Martin Luther, “Heir stehe Ich. Ich kannicht auder.” ’

13 August 1993
‘In keeping with Friday the 13th, my mail contained the paperwork from the timber industry lawyers: the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior and I and the entire FEMAT are being sued. The basis of the suit is that FEMAT operations were conducted in a manner not in compliance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The brief was filled with page after page demanding documents and affidavits, and question after question concerning how FEMAT operated.

Well, I will deal with that when the time comes. The White House team set the rules and FEMAT did the technical work. I have learned to simply tell the truth in the briefest possible manner and then let the lawyers fight it out and the judges rule.

There are moments, however, when I sit at my desk answering interrogatories and sit hour after hour being deposed by lawyers and sit on the witness stand in court trying to tell the truth while not being discredited by the legal attack dogs - at such times it is sometimes difficult to remember that somewhere there are biologists in denim pants and work boots doing fieldwork far from the world of lawyers in their three-piece suits, shiny black shoes, crisply ironed white shirts, and fresh haircuts. I feel terribly out of place in this world - and the worst part is, they know it. A remark came back to me that one of the industry lawyers made. He said I reminded him of a grizzly bear bayed by dogs: angry, puzzled, and frightened.

Now when I am at the mercy of the lawyers, I keep the image of the cornered grizz’ in mind, knowing that the smooth Harvard lawyer has never seen a bear swat the life out of a dog with one sweep of a paw. The thing about bear baiting is that sometimes you get the bear, but sometimes the bear gets you!’

8 October 1993, La Grande
‘Assistant Secretary Jim Lyons called from his mother’s home in New Jersey at 12:30 a. m. Eastern Standard Time. His message was simple: President Clinton had signed off on my appointment as the next chief of the Forest Service earlier in the day. The next step is a call from White House attorneys to make certain there is nothing in my background that would preclude my appointment or that might prove an embarrassment to the president of the United States.

The waiting and uncertainty have come to an end. Mr. Lyons was still uncertain as to the exact mechanism of making the appointment public knowledge. I told him that whatever his intention, I was not available for the next ten days because of a long-standing speaking engagement and an elk season that begins next week. He asked if elk season was mandatory so far as my participation was concerned. I told him that I had not missed an elk-hunting season in twenty years and didn’t intend to start now.

What was not relayed to him was how badly I needed this hunting season in the high Wallowas, particularly just now. I have a real need to draw strength from the wilderness and the isolation and the majesty and the solitude. What lies just ahead - and now with certainty - is the awesome responsibility of rebuilding the Forest Service and the loss of my life’s partner and the light of my life. If I had my sweetheart with me, there is little doubt that the journey would be exciting and joyful. She would make certain of that, as she always has when I was shy and withdrawn and a little afraid. Just now, the contemplation of that journey without her fills me with trepidation.’

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