This Too Shall Pass- Memories of Chief Thomas’s Bumpy Ride

Our recent discussions have caused me to reflect on the role of Chief and the expectations of people in the FS. Certainly there is a strong cultural meaning to that position (and not Associate Chief, nor Deputy Chief for Research, nor Regional Forester in Alaska) that perhaps resonates differently in the cultural FS DNA than, say, the BLM Director does to BLM folks. In some ways, perhaps, it resonates more as a wise elder or a spiritual leader than a CEO.

Take a look at this article about Chief Thomas’ bumpy ride. Maybe you will shed a tear, laugh out loud, or say a prayer to or for JWT. For those of you who weren’t there. you might be surprised!

I’ve excerpted the section about what we usually talk about on this blog..note that there are several quotes from our own Andy Stahl.

Thomas dismisses criticism phlegmatically. He hasn’t changed, he says; the critics “just got to know me.”

The timber industry still resents Thomas’ role in the Northwest Forest Plan but has warmed to him personally. Industry lobbyist Crandall says “a lot of people in the industry that work with him respect him and trust him, including me.”

As for the administration, Lyons and White House officials make no bones about their resistance to Thomas’ broad policy proposals that are opposed by environmental groups.

Lyons sat on Thomas’ proposal to streamline forest planning, saying it would dilute the same wildlife “viability” rule that led to the shutdown of federal logging in the Northwest. The rule calls for ensuring that all native vertebrate species remain viable throughout their range. Thomas claims that the rule is impractical and favors using indicator species and their habitat.

Lyons also watered down Thomas’ 1994 Forest Health Initiative, which included more salvage logging than environmental groups wanted. And the undersecretary stymied Thomas’ bid to fold several laws on environmental compliance into one coherent statute, eliminating overlapping and sometimes contradictory language.

Katie McGinty, Clinton’s top environmental adviser, said Thomas is correct to suggest that “it is time to start looking at” a revised and streamlined environmental compliance statute.

But she doesn’t want this Congress to do it.

“It would be a dangerous prospect at the very least to unleash many of these members on environmental laws,” she said in an interview. “They’re not going to improve the laws, but to repeal them.”


But Thomas’ Forest Service gets low marks from advocates on both sides. Environmental groups say it has slid back toward destructive logging. Industry officials charge that it is unable to make decisions and is nearing collapse.

“Decisions are being made by the political system or the legal system,” said Crandall of the AFPA, which has aggressively used both. Agency officials, he said, “are losing their authority to make decisions.”

“If things don’t change,” Crandall said, “the Forest Service as an agency, as we know it today, isn’t going to survive this.”

The strife should come as no surprise to Thomas. Before becoming chief, he wrote that “land-use planning based on an adversarial approach inevitably produces results that please none of the participants.” And in a passage that seems even more appropriate today, he wrote:

“The fighting goes on and even accelerates in frequency and intensity. The people and the forest are bruised and battered in the process. The gladiators never tire of the fight — it is what they do.”

My favorite quote, as a person who spent many cubicle hours working on Ecosystem Management was “Never before in my memory has a term of public discourse gone from virtual anonymity to meaninglessness without an intervening period of coherence,” from Mark Rey,

Anyway, remember that quotation from Santayana “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”? I’d say “those who cannot remember the past find it easier to say “this is the worst ever”. We all survived it, despite what Doug thought at the time. Please feel free to post your own reflections or memories.

3 thoughts on “This Too Shall Pass- Memories of Chief Thomas’s Bumpy Ride”

  1. I was in the agency 10 years when Chief Thomas was appointed Chief. His words and leadership infused new energy into my ambitions for a FS career. He was a powerful influence in how I, and the Agency, viewed our contributions to managing the American public’s national forests.

    • I’d like to hear more about your views on this.. how was that leadership expressed to you? Stories are always helpful. Please consider writing a post on this.

  2. The most prominent, public expression of Jack’s leadership was his so-called “obey the law” letter where he detailed his expectations of the Agency’s personnel. Those concise, meaningful stated expectations, which are difficult to dispute, tended to resonate with a lot of employees. The fact they were easy to repeat also made them effective.

    I also had the fortune to meet him in person, both when he was Chief and after he was Chief. His delivery style was something like a sage grandfather who would wax poetic about his life/career experience by the fireplace. For many of us working at the district level, he was bigger than life. I remember one story when JWT was Chief that I won’t share here, but upon hearing JWT describe the incident made me proud that he was my Chief at the time.

    Does that mean subsequent Chiefs have been less effective in delivering their message? Well, that is the debate, isn’t it? But, the Forest Service has certainly become more politicized since JWT was Chief – that is the nature of the Chief being an appointee of the Secretary rather than an internal selection by Agency leaders.


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