Jack Ward Thomas, former chief of the U.S. Forest Service, renowned wildlife biologist, pioneer in advancing the concept of ecosystem management and a conservation leader, passed away recently.
Jack was an avid hunter and fisherman, and a pretty good backcountry guide. He spent the larger part of his career in La Grande, Ore., as a Forest Service researcher and, ultimately, as director of the Starkey Experimental Station. Jack loved La Grande and time in the backcountry. He is probably the last chief of the Forest Service who could tie up a pack horse and set up a wilderness camp like a pro.
One summer, he took my oldest daughter, Elizabeth, then 9, and me on a backcountry trip into the Eagle Cap Wilderness of the Wallowa Whitman National Forest near La Grande. While on that trip, he taught my daughter to fly-fish and she fed us the entire way.
Most of all, Jack was a man of science. His laboratory was the public landscapes of the West. He prided himself on learning how those landscapes worked, how wildlife and land were connected, and how what we chose to do in managing those lands and that wildlife habitat affected both. He understood how important it was that the people entrusted to manage those lands — lands owned by every American — understand those relationships as well.
Jack is probably best known for his role in the debate over management of the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. During the 1980s, controversy over timber harvesting and concern that continued timbering would threaten the northern spotted owl eventually led to a court-ordered shutdown of federal timber sales in the region until the Forest Service could demonstrate it could both cut timber and protect the owl.
At the height of the spotted owl and old-growth forest debate in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jack played a key role as consultant to the first Bush administration and, later, the Congress, in helping both understand the science issues at play in the debate and options for how to manage these ancient forests to protect wildlife and salmon runs while maintaining timber production.
Following the 1992 presidential election, Jack was invited to speak at a forest conference convened in Portland by President Bill Clinton to follow through on a commitment to find a balanced solution to the controversy. Immediately following the conference, the president called on Jack to put together a team to develop options for resolving the conflict.
Jack and his team produced a report that framed President Clinton’s Northwest Forest Plan. The plan had three components: establishment of old-growth forest reserves, protection of key watersheds critical to threatened salmon species, and sustainable timbering on remaining public and private forestlands. The 9th Circuit Court eventually accepted the plan and lifted the injunction against timber harvesting in the region, noting that only an ecosystem approach could provide the means to resolve the controversy.
In early 1994, Jack became the first wildlife biologist to serve as chief of the Forest Service. Most importantly, Jack made clear that science, not politics, should anchor forest policy and that ecosystem management should guide national forest management.
Jack was a strong defender of public lands and continually emphasized that these lands should be managed to sustain their ecological integrity and the goods and services they provide. That is Jack’s legacy.
Jim Lyons is a deputy assistant secretary, land and minerals management, Department of Interior.