Michael Dombeck

America's Public Land Birthright


Michael Dombeck is well known for his dedication to responsible stewardship of America's public lands. He has served as Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management and as the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service.  He is also an educator and scientist. He is a University of Wisconsin (UW) Fellow and a retired Professor of Global Conservation at UW.  In this video conversation with Huey Johnson, Mr. Dombeck discusses his professional accomplishments with the Roadless Rule and why this Rule was so important in managing public lands for future generations.

Michael P. Dombeck is an American conservationist, educator, scientist, and outdoorsman. He served as Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management from 1994–1997 and was the 14th Chief of the United States Forest Service from 1997 to 2001. Dombeck also served as UW System Fellow and Professor of Global conservation at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point from 2001 to 2010.

Born in Stevens Point, Wisconsin and raised in Sawyer County, Dombeck worked as a fishing guide for 11 summers in the Hayward area. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and earned a B.S. in biology and general sciences and an M.S.T. in biology and education degrees. He attended the University of Minnesota, earning an M.S. in Zoology and later earned a PhD from Iowa State University in 1984. His research included studies on the movement, behavior, reproduction, and early life ecology of the muskellunge, Wisconsin’s state fish. He was Program Chairman of the 1st International Muskellunge Symposium held in 1984 with proceedings published by the American Fisheries Society.

After three years of teaching zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Dombeck joined the United States Forest Service (USFS) as a fisheries biologist on the Hiawatha National Forest. He held additional Forest Service assignments throughout the Midwest and California, focused on both aquatic research and fisheries management, after which he was promoted to National Fisheries Program Manager for the USFS where he led the integration of aquatic resources considerations into national forest management and the Rise to the Future Program. He spent a year in 1989 as a LEGIS Fellow working in the U.S. Senate on agriculture and appropriations issues.

At the beginning of the George H. W. Bush administration, Dombeck was assigned as Special Assistant to the Director of the Bureau of Land Management and later was named Science Advisor. At the beginning of the Clinton Administration, he was assigned Acting Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Lands and Minerals Management. In 1994 Mike was appointed Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management by Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt. Dombeck held that position until 1997 when Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman named him the 14th Chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

Dombeck’s time at the BLM was marked by a variety of successes that focused the agency’s management on wildlife protection, riparian and aquatic resources and InFish. Dombeck worked closely with then Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas [see the Forces of Nature interview] to increase the two agencies’ cooperation and sustainability and ecosystem based management and watershed restoration.

As US Forest Service Chief, Michael Dombeck’s overarching principle for the nation’s public lands was, and still is, that of Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt: To provide “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

His work at the USFS reflected this ideal. In 1997 with the Forest Service Leadership team a four-point agenda was crafted. It became known as The Natural Resources Agenda, which emphasized four major topics; watershed health and restoration, ecologically sustainable forest and grasslands management, recreation and a long-term forest roads policy, which was outlined in a speech titled “A Gradual Unfolding of a National Purpose.” Dombeck also added emphasis to the importance of clean water as a forest a product and appointed a task force of scientists and economists to the quantity and value of water flowing from the National Forests.

The major achievement under Dombeck’s leadership was the development of the Roadless Rule, which protected 58 million acres of the most remote national forest lands. Dombeck laid his proposal for roadless area management in a speech to the 73rd Annual Outdoor Writers’ Association in Greensboro, North Carolina on June 27, 2000. In that speech he proposed 1) vastly prohibiting road building on 58 million acres of roadless area – citing a lack of funds for their maintenance – and, 2) deferring other major decisions regarding roadless areas to local planners and managers, allowing them to determine how best to protect local lands while protecting their social and ecological value. This proposal, Dombeck believed, would lay the groundwork for enhancing and increasing Americans’ experiences in the nation’s forests by protecting million acres of the remaining wildest places which provide the highest quality back country hunting and fishing experiences in the US, as well as protecting watershed health and ecosystem function.as well as improve the quality of watersheds and ecosystems.

Dombeck retired from federal service in 2001 due to the lack of support of roadless area protection by the George W. Bush administration. He was granted the highest award in career federal service, the Presidential Rank-Distinguished Executive Award, in 2001. He was the only person to have led the nation’s two largest public land management agencies.

After retiring from federal service, Dombeck took a position as Professor of Global Conservation at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and was later named UW System Fellow, where he served from 2001 to 2010. He currently serves as Executive Director of the David Smith Post Doctoral Fellowship in conservation biology (since 2005), as a trustee of the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread (since 2002), Trout Unlimited (since 2010), and the Wisconsin chapter of The Nature Conservancy (since 2009).

Dombeck has authored, co-authored, and edited more than 200 popular and scholarly publications, including the books Watershed Restoration: Principles and Practices and From Conquest to Conservation: Our Public Lands Legacy.

Dombeck has received the following awards:

  • Ansel Adams Award, 2010
  • Aldo Leopold Restoration Award, 2009
  • Fellow, Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, 2008
  • Honorary Doctorate, Haverford University, 2007
  • Wisconsin Idea Professor, University of Wisconsin System, 2004
  • Sustained Achievement Award, Renewable Natural Resources Foundation, 2003
  • Distinguished Service Award, Society for Conservation Biology, 2003
  • Audubon Medal, National Audubon Society, 2002
  • Lady Bird Johnson Conservation Award, 2002
  • Edgar Wayburn Award, Sierra Club, 2002
  • Presidential Rank – Distinguished Executive Award, 2001
  • Chief Emeritus, United States Forest Service, 2001
  • Honorary Doctor of Public Service, Northland College, Ashland, WI, 2001
  • Chair’s Award, Natural Resources Council of America, 2001
  • Conservation Hero of the Year, The Wilderness Society, 2001
  • Conservationist of the Year, National Wildlife Federation, 2001
  • Man of the Year, American Sportfishing Association, 1999
  • Outdoor Life Magazine Annual Conservation Award, 1999
  • Secretary’s Award for Outstanding Federal Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1999
  • Wetlands Conservationist Award, Ducks Unlimited, 1998
  • Distinguished Alumnus, University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point, 1997
  • President’s Fishery Conservation Award, American Fisheries Society, 1996

Mike Dombeck:   There was never a time that I wasn’t interested in the outdoors. I grew up in Northwestern Wisconsin, 70 miles or so south of Duluth and Superior. Growing up that way, never remembering not having an appreciation for nature. I ended up being very interested in plants and animals; and you know, I think by the time I ended up graduating from college, I probably knew the scientific name of almost everything in the north woods and a little bit about it. And one thing just led to the next. I sort of followed my nose and did what I enjoyed doing. I’d gotten a bachelor and masters and a PhD in fisheries. I went to work for the [U.S] Forest Service. I couldn’t imagine when they first hired me, why the Forest Service wanted a fisheries biologist. It was the era when they were looking beyond timber harvest, having to comply with National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA]. They were hiring more fisheries biologists, more wildlife biologists. We oftentimes referred to ourselves as “combat biologists” because we were continually telling the foresters why they shouldn’t do something. And then coming from the Midwest to California was really a major turning point for me and my career. And what I found myself doing, was building partnerships between the Forest Service and California Fish and Game.

Mike Dombeck:   Pretty soon, I got recognized at the national level for, you know what’s going on. What is Dombeck doing in California? And then next thing you know, I was asked to come to Washington DC and do the same thing. And that basically led me from being a technical expert to looking at larger scale programs, and how you can have an impact on a larger scale rather than just looking at individual projects on a piece meal basis.

Mike Dombeck:   And one of the really neat opportunities I had as Chief of the Forest Service–and this just goes to show you how my serendipity is in life–was to develop a policy to protect 58 million acres of roadless areas on the National forest in the United States. What it did is it set aside these lands for the future; and even though it was a very, very controversial policy, my view is it’s also a very conservative policy. Because it doesn’t cost anything, number one, and it’s keeping options open for the future, that these wild places will be here for future generations. And in 50 or 100 years, if somebody wants to go and do something with them, that option is still there. Once they’re developed, once they’re roaded, once they’re opened up, that option is gone. [Aldo] Leopold really opened up my eyes to the–you know such beautiful writing– but also the connection to nature, the importance of nature. And the land ethic is so important in Leopold’s writings. I used his quotes in talks I gave, and things that I wrote every chance that I could. I looked for a place to stick in an Aldo Leopold quote from the Sand County Almanac and one of his places.

Mike Dombeck:   We’re losing the wild places in the U.S. at a tremendous clip. One of the milestones that the U.S. crossed not too many decades ago is [that] we really became an urban country with now more than 50% of the population living in urban areas. And no longer do many kids grow up on farms and in the woods. And maintaining that human connection to nature is so important–and that happens at a very young age.

Mike Dombeck:   The fact that we have almost 500 million acres in the United States that belong to everybody, and that’s something that we’re…you know other cultures have their pyramids, they have their works of art, they have their monarchies. We in the United States have the public lands that belong to everybody and it’s for John Q Public. You don’t have to be wealthy. You don’t have to be able to afford a hunting lease where you can go and hunt, or fish, or hike, or bike, or camp on BLM managed lands–the public lands–the National Forest lands, and many of the National Parks. And in many cases, you don’t even have to pay a fee. If you go to the developed site, obviously you’re going to have to pay a fee, but this is – I think the value of the public land that a citizen’s right in the U.S. is — you’re automatically the owner of a few acres of land just by being born in the United States. Is something that we really don’t value. And it bothers me today to see the run on public land, if you will, by various politicians and other special interest groups where they say, “We’ve got to dispose of the public land.” Well, this is something that belongs to everybody.

Mike Dombeck:   If we have a challenge today above almost any other, is keeping kids, particularly kids, but all people connected to nature and the importance of the land ethic. If we take care of the land, it’ll take care of us. In the programs that I’m involved in now, we see a lot of women, especially in conservation research, and that’s really good to see. The thing that’s really down that we really need to get on top of; there’s very few people of color or other ethnic origins that are moving into conservation. It’s a profession of Caucasians, almost completely, and we see very few minorities, very few people of color coming into the field of conservation, and we’ve got to figure out a way to fix that.