Letters from the West

Ex-Forest Service chief Jack Ward Thomas taught us about ecological complexity

Jack Ward Thomas
Jack Ward Thomas

No single person had more impact on public land management over the past 25 years than Jack Ward Thomas, who rose from elk researcher to become chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

The native Texan died May 26 in his home in Florence, Mont., after a long illness. He was 81.

Thomas also shifted firefighting policy to recognize the realities of wildfires in and around mushrooming communities throughout the West and raised the bar on firefighter safety.

After his drawling charm and straight talk at President Bill Clinton’s Forest Summit in 1993 impressed the wonkish new president, he was picked to be the first biologist to head the Forest Service so he could put his plans into place. He told Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, timber executives, union leaders and environmentalists that day it wouldn’t be easy.

Thomas told me in 2004 that his wife had cancer and that he didn’t want to leave her to go to Washington. She urged him to go after chatting with President Clinton herself. She died less than a year later.

The Northwest Forest Plan, which dramatically limited harvest of old-growth forests over three states and millions of acres that made up the habitat of owls and many other species, got the federal government out of a decadelong court battle. But it angered Northwest lawmakers from both parties and led to the closure of dozens of lumber mills and the loss of thousands of jobs, largely because the agency had cut too much timber for far too long.

But Thomas’ willingness to fight for the timber industry in other areas, including in Southern Idaho when he supported salvage logging in the Boise National Forest, drew ire from environmentalists such as Jeffrey St. Clair.

“This concession to corporate America from the father of ecosystem management is the ecological equivalent of infanticide,” St. Clair wrote.

Thomas was most beloved by sportsmen. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation gave him its highest award in 2015. A steadfast defender of public lands, Thomas told the Outdoor Writers of America in 1995 how he would respond to people who suggested disposing of public lands: “These lands are our lands — all the lands that most of us will ever own. These lands are ours today and our children’s in years to come. Such a birthright stands alone in all the earth. Hell no!”

I met Thomas in 1988 at Old Faithful in the middle of the Yellowstone fires. He was a visiting biologist assessing the impact of the fires when he got caught up in the firestorm that engulfed the area that afternoon. I lost track of him in the chaos, but when I was catching up years later, he told me that he had been on the ground next to the Old Faithful Inn, covering his head and trying to survive.

Six years later he stood at the base of Storm King Mountain in Glenwood Springs, Colo., waiting for word on 14 firefighters, several under his command who were later found dead. As Forest Service chief he ordered his fire managers to stop putting firefighters in front of the growing conflagrations like he had seen at Old Faithful and to follow all the safety rules.

When one manager stood up and said such a limit would prevent them from fighting fires, Thomas told the man he was done fighting fires because he was going to take away his red card.

One man started clapping. Others joined in until Thomas had a standing ovation.

In one startling, public step, Thomas changed firefighting culture. Thomas had learned years before that managing wildlife was more about managing people than critters. Before he left he taught many of us that ecosystem and fire management are really about a willingness to accept change.

Thomas not only accepted change, he drove it.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker