How does a wildlife field biologist become the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service? Jack Ward Thomas, a wildlife biologist, professor, and former Chief of the USFS talks about his love of public lands, his role in securing critical habitat for the endangered Northern spotted owl and the serious tradeoffs that were a consequence of this scientific and political decision.
A distinguished wildlife scientist for more than 50 years, Jack Ward Thomas was the first biologist to be appointed as Chief Forester of the National Forest Service. He once said, “Ecosystems are not only more complex than you think, they’re more complex than you CAN think.”
In 1957, Dr. Thomas began his career as a research scientist in Texas and spent many later years as a professor at the University of Montana. In 1993 President Clinton appointed Dr. Thomas to be the thirteenth Chief Forester of the National Forest Service because of his creation of what became known as the Northwest Forest Plan. Dr. Thomas emphasized the need to protect old-growth ecosystems while heading the Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team (FEMAT). This recommendation was based on the work of a scientific team that proposed a resolution to resolve the northern spotted owl crises in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. Dr. Thomas is also a prolific writer who has authored more than 250 published articles and books on subjects as diverse as wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, elk, quail, gray squirrels, suburban songbirds and cemetery ecology.
Jack Ward Thomas has received many awards for his service including the USDA Distinguished Service and Superior Service Awards; Elected Fellow, Society of American Foresters; National Wildlife Federation, Conservation Achievement Award for Science; the Aldo Leopold Medal, The Wildlife Society; General Chuck Yeager Award, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; and USDA Forest Service Chief’s Award for Excellence in Technology Transfer.
Jack Ward Thomas: I had a chance to go to work for the Forest Service in West Virginia after 10 years in the Texas Game Department, I found out about public land. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I mean I still, hard for me to get out of my car on a national forest and just walk into the woods and I don’t have to ask anybody’s permission as long as I behave myself and don’t do something gross against the law, nobody’s going to say a word to me, and I fell in love with public land. And then began to develop a, perhaps larger vision of what wildlife management, wildlife biology ought to be about.
Huey Johnson: The passive unknown importance of the public lands is an astonishing political fact to me.
Jack Ward Thomas: I, I consider it to be a miracle, but I don’t think it’s a miracle that’s guaranteed to us forever. In today’s world, you look up, we have huge budget deficits, we’ve got demands for resources. I fear that those public lands are going to be under increasing attack.
Huey Johnson: You and I chatted before hand and share an appreciation of Aldo Leopold. Can you describe how you discovered Leopold?
Jack Ward Thomas: Well, I would like to tell you that I discovered Aldo Leopold when I was 3 years old but that would not be true. I frankly had never heard of Aldo Leopold in my life until I went to Texas A & M in 1953 and when I was a junior, I took a course in big game management from a fellow named Charlie Walmo [Sp?] who was one of Leopold’s students. And Charlie insisted that our class, which was the biggest class in Wildlife Biology at the time, 9 people, read Sand County Almanac and make a book report. We did and as I recall, all 9 of us panned it. We simply were not mature enough mentally and in terms of philosophy to even grasp what he was talking about, we thought it was pretty damned abstract and maybe a little bit on the touchy feely side. Well now I’ve been a wildlife biologist for 50 years and about 40 years ago I took up reading Sand County Almanac every year on my birthday.
Huey Johnson: Oh wow.
Jack Ward Thomas: To try to remember and try to figure what I had learned in the previous year. The man was an incredible foresight and a wonderful and a beautiful writer.
Huey Johnson: The point of you being a biologist and ending up as chief of the Forest Service is a phenomenal one and you immediately bought to bear values other than just timber production.
Jack Ward Thomas: The Forest Service had the huge mission in its organic act of providing timber for the American people and they did that very, very well and the American people began to understand there were more things to the management of land than the production of timber, water, fish and wildlife and recreation. And I happened to be a wildlife guy, so I was part of that revolution that began to focus more and more on a general background rather than timber. I came from an unusual position; I went directly from being a field biologist to being Chief of the Forest Service. Now, I’m not – was not naïve about politics and I had been the lead scientist that put together three different efforts to try to deal with the Northern Spotted Owl old growth issue in the Pacific Northwest. But most chiefs before and now, come up through the ranks of the National Forest System. I don’t suspect that it will ever happen again, maybe they learned a lesson.
Huey: Yeah, maybe. Well amid the stories that intrigue me that you were up to your ears in was the spotted owl issue.
Jack Ward Thomas: Yes, I first got into the spotted owl business in through the back door and accidentally. I had just shown up in La Grande Oregon as the new project leader for the Range and Wildlife Habitat Research operations in Eastern Oregon and Washington. The phone rang one day and it was my assistant director, and in those days we had a thing called year end money, there was some money sitting around if you didn’t spend it, you were going to lose it. And a guy says “I’ve got 10,000 dollars in the sock here, why don’t you go down and visit with the coop wildlife unit leader and see if you guys can make a little magic.”
So I called him up and he said “Well, I’d like Eric Foreman to do a Master’s Degree on the habitat relationships of the northern spotted owl.” And the young man did a wonderful job and it began to look, oh my god, it looks like this subspecies is in decline and its associated with old growth. There was much more research done by a lot of different people and a lot of different places that led it to be a candidate for listing as threatened or endangered by the Fish and Wildlife Service. This was not a minor league association; this is where the timber was coming from in the Pacific Northwest, huge, great big old trees. That looked like that was a collision course which it did indeed turn out to be. There was a lot of jobs and a lot of money went going to counties and to local businesses and to the employment sector.
When it could be avoided no longer, I got sucked into 3 different efforts to deal with it. Now also I need to interrupt at this point and remind everybody of what the stated purpose and law is of the Endangered Species Act. The purpose of this act is the conservation of ecosystems upon which a threatened or endangered species may depend. It became an issue in the election between Clinton and Bush.
Mr. Clinton won. Now I’m going to do it one more time except this one we requested to do a number of options and in the process the President decided that I should be Chief of the Forest Service. Now I don’t think that was a reward for this, for shutting down a large portion of the timber industry, I think it was a reward for having been able to put together and lead and develop a plan that was unassailable and he looked at that as a leadership thing. Now unfortunately at the time, my wife was dying of cancer and I told him that I could not do that. And I came home from work one day and my wife looked at me and she said “What’s this I hear about you turning down this position?” And I looked at her rather dumbfounded because I didn’t know that anybody knew about that but me. And she said “Look, if you don’t want to do this job, that’s up to you. If you don’t feel capable, that’s up to you. But you know damn well you’re capable and you know they need you to do it.” And she said “If you don’t want to do it, you say so but don’t you hide behind my skirts.” And so I became Chief of the Forest Service.
Remember that science should not be political except in the sense of where you direct your questions, then how that’s done should be according to the scientific method and all the protocols thereof. That’s simple and sounds complex enough but then when you get to something like the Northwest Forest Plan around spotted owl and old growth, suddenly you have to bring hundreds and hundreds of pieces of science together. That gets to be a whole different bag and a whole different set of skills to be able to take all that information and meld it into a plan. And that’s probably the most lacking skill set that I know of in the natural resources business and probably in anything. The president selected an option, which is option 9, which was not by far the most constraining option.
It was immediately challenged and taken to court and the judge turned around and said “Well no, I think it passes muster but I want to know what about all those other species that are associated with old growth.” So we had to go back to the drawing board and deal with it, I forget what the array was but over 100 species. Now the point in that is, if the spotted owl – if they suddenly found spotted owls everywhere it wouldn’t have mattered because you have all these other species that are associated with that ecosystem. And the purpose of this Act is the conservation of ecosystems, so that’s where it ended up.
It was tough; some of it was both sad and remarkably almost amusing at the same time. I remember one night in the middle of the night the phone rang when all this was going on and I answer the phone with my name, It was the middle of the night, I said “Jack Ward Thomas,” And he says, the guy was a little slurred on the other end, he says “Are you the son of a bitch, the spotted owl guy?” I said “Yeah, what can I do for you?” He said “Well you rotten, miserable bastard, you put me out of business” and you know he went on for a while and I wasn’t angry, I was empathetic, I could understand. And he says, he said “So if I were you, I’d be pretty damn careful. One of these days you’re going to turn the key on your pickup and you’re going to be gone.” I said “Hold it.” I said “Sir, I’m empathetic and I know that you need to give me a death threat, but we have rules and regulations about death threats. I cannot accept death threats at home. I can only accept death threats at the office between 8 and 5 on Monday’s, Wednesday’s and Friday’s and the number is 243-9966,” and I could hear him breathing heavy on the other end and I said “Now sir, if you will call during those hours I will personally accept your death threat at that time, but I really apologize but I can’t accept death threats any other way. Thank you, good night.” But it was, it was a little scary and there were bodyguards for a while and oddly though, I was the person being threatened, I was empathetic to those people who were that upset.
Huey Johnson: That’s the hard part of it.
Jack Ward Thomas: I mean if somebody had – if I could have picked out somebody to blame for the trouble, I would have done exactly the same, I don’t know. If you’re working the public arena, instead of getting bonuses they give you awards and I have probably received as many accolades as anybody and as many death threats and as many disparaging comments as anybody, but you – when you’re on that front line, you’re going to get that…-
Huey Johnson: Yeah.
Jack Ward Thomas: From both directions, and the only thing you can do is look up and say “look,” you breathe deep and you say “all right, I have a job to do and I’m going to do it the best way I can.” But one of the things people need to understand when we focus wrath on somebody, they’re not free agents. Don’t be naïve. There’s no chief of the Forest Service or head of the Fish and Wildlife Service or anybody else that’s a free agent. You operate under budgets. You operate under the law. You operate under judicial decisions. And you’ve got a boss that gets elected. That’s the system. And I don’t think its perfect and I could fix a lot of things. I’m not going to get the option to do that but I think I’d rather work under our system than any other in the world.