Unit Eight: Michael Dombeck

Interview: Michael Dombeck

Michael Dombeck brings unique experience in ecology, academic research, and government to this interview, introducing our unit on Ecology. Formerly head of the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management, he is currently chief of the U.S. Forest Service, an agency responsible for managing much of the public land in the United States. He is also an adjunct professor of biology at Yale University. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in fisheries biology at Iowa State University in 1985. His scientific publications and a 1997 book on watershed restoration emphasize the importance of adopting modern ecological principles in managing public lands. Widely respected for his diplomatic skills, Dr. Dombeck helps bridge gaps between the scientists who study the structure and function of biological communities and ecosystems and the lawmakers who may directly affect how ecosystem resources are managed. Larry Mitchell interviewed Dr. Dombeck in Washington, D.C.

Some people say you have one of the toughest jobs in Washington. How do you feel about that?

This job is about managing lands that belong to all U.S. citizens-the public's lands-and this is a time when land and the variety of things it provides people are more highly sought after than ever. We are coming out of a decade and a half when too much of our energy went into what I call red-zone controversies, where you just bring up the topic and we're ready to go at each other's throat: "It's a sin to cut a tree" versus "I want to cut them all."

Besides the red zone of controversy, there is a yellow zone, where we sort of agree on some things and disagree on others. Then there's the green zone, where there is total agreement. The more we can do to encourage people to focus on common goals, on yellow and green zones, the more we can accomplish. The common goals are there, in spite of the many different opinions. We're in a fantastic business, and this is one of the best jobs. I have the opportunity to talk about, and help promote, healthy forest ecosystems, clean water, plant and animal diversity, soil stability, hunting, fishing, wildlife watching, and families having open space to recreate on the land.

Tell us what led you to this office.

I grew up 25 miles from a town of 1500 in northern Wisconsin, and like a typical kid growing up in that part of the world, I did a lot of things outside. I know now that I've always been interested in natural history, but I was not sure what I wanted to do until I took some biology courses in college. In fact, one professor is the reason I majored in biology; professor George Becker was one of those people with the skill to get you to work at about 120% of your capacity and like it. There are always some people around that have that skill, but it's rare. I went through the education program in college, so I have teacher training, along with biology and general science. I also started writing a column over 20 years ago called "Natural History Notes" in a local magazine; I still write for it and am always gleaning the literature for unique little facts about science and animals that stand out and grab people.

Did you always know what you wanted to do?

For awhile, my goal was to be a professor, but like most of us, I didn't have a specific path plotted out. After finishing two master's degrees, I got married, and about that time the Forest Service started hiring fisheries biologists. So I went to work for the Forest Service, thinking, "Well, I like the outdoors, I like the woods, I'll get to see some nice places," and that's one thing that has come true. Eventually, my master's work led to a Ph.D. project at Iowa State on the reproductive ecology of the muskellunge. I had wonderful experiences there, with the students, the faculty, and with our research on the population dynamics during spawning of muskies and northern pike. I was able to do the research as a Forest Service employee. Since then, I like to think I've been at the interface of research and management.

What are main roles of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the U.S. government?

I like to think of the Forest Service and the BLM, along with the National Park Service, as the people's stewards of the public domain. In the United States, the public domain was at one time about 1.8 billion acres. Some of it was the land resulting from actual purchases, such as the Louisiana Purchase, as well as from various conflicts. Some of these lands were homesteaded; others became Indian reservations, military bases, and other government installations. Other lands were given away to encourage development of the West. If you were a lieutenant colonel in the Revolutionary War, your pension would have been 1100 acres of land; if you were a private in the War of 1812, your pension would have been 80 acres. The railroads got every other section of land, 10 miles on each side of their track as they moved west; in the mountainous areas they got 20 miles on each side. Much of that doesn't belong to the railroads anymore, but much of it remained in private ownership, especially where there is water. Today, if you look at a land tenure map, you'll see a checkerboard pattern that makes absolutely no sense. The Homestead Act of 1862 granted 160 acres of federal land to virtually anyone over 21 years old who would live on it and cultivate it for five years. The U.S. Congress also granted large areas of land to western states to support schools, roads, and other public facilities. Timber resources on some of these lands are still sold to help support many schools.

About 30% of the land in the United States (about 690 million acres) of the initial 1.8 billion acres of public domain lands remains public, owned collectively by its citizens. Millions of Americans use these lands for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, skiing, and other forms of recreation. Public lands also contain some of the best and last habitats for rare and endangered species. Four federal agencies manage most of these lands-the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Some 191 million acres are National Forests, congressionally designated tracts of land administered and managed by the U.S. Forest Service, a branch of the Department of Agriculture.

In your book Watershed Management: Principles and Practices, you state that federal agencies cannot protect resources such as endangered species or timber without managing them in the context of larger ecosystems. Please elaborate on this.

The BLM and the Forest Service manage large blocks of land, most of it in the western states. In many cases the Forest Service manages lands in the headwaters of watersheds, and the BLM manages much of the land downstream. These agencies are mandated by law to manage their lands to restore and sustain the biological integrity and watershed health. Doing so requires a broad understanding of the watershed as a whole, and a cooperative spirit among all those concerned and charged with managing natural resources. We have to learn to live within the limits of watersheds. An old proverb goes something like: "We haven't inherited the land from our forefathers; we have borrowed it from our children."

What exactly is ecosystem management?

By its very nature, this is not something that can be simply or precisely defined. Ecosystem management is taking a broad view of landscapes and how they are defined by natural processes. By adopting this approach to managing lands, we're moving from a reductionist point of view to a more holistic point of view, taking a "long" view in both space and time and trying to integrate sound ecological science and management principles that are geared to the long-term health of whole ecosystems. We are looking at historic (natural) patterns in ecosystems, or watersheds, and how best to restore and sustain them over the long haul. Instead of looking at single organisms, we're looking at how all the pieces of an ecosystem fit together. Let's work within the limits of the land, and make sure that one use isn't dominant over another. We need to measure our success in management in how we maintain the resilience of an ecosystem.

Ecosystems are not stable entities; they change all the time—some very slowly, others fairly rapidly—and change is part of nature. There are natural disasters and human-inflicted problems; the ability of the ecosystem to heal and continue functioning is the key.

Could you tell us a bit more about ecosystem change and the natural and human forces that can effect it?

Let's try to relate this more to someone's personal experience. If you grow up in an area with a dense forest and learn that forest fire is one of our worst enemies, then in your mind that is the natural state, and in your mind that's the way it should be. But historically this might not have been the case. One thing we know is that forested areas were not all old growth or covered with dense stands of trees. There have always been natural disasters and catastrophes, large and small—fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and so on—and ecosystems are as diverse as the forces that constantly alter them. People—and government agencies—have not always appreciated the creative side of these forces.

You know, one of the greatest success stories in public education was Smokey Bear.

The message was that all fire is bad. The piece we missed is that fire is also an integral part of many ecosystems. Fire can almost be viewed as a cleansing mechanism, like wind and water. If you oversuppress fire, then you get unnaturally high fuel buildup. Then, when you have an extremely dry year, you may end up with such an intense fire that the entire plant community is destroyed. Yellowstone in 1988 was a prime example of that. By being aggressive in fire suppression, we not only allowed fuels to build up, but the species composition of those areas changed. Then we had the extensive fires. Soon after, the Yellowstone ecosystem began showing its resilience, with new plant growth quickly covering the burned areas. Ecosystems have always been varied—mosaics, in a sense—and our challenge today is to maintain those mosaics.

Social debate and education are key components of all this. As we apply the concept of whole-ecosystem management, it's very important to include the socioeconomic aspects. People are an important part of ecosystems, and if you don't take the people with you in decision-making, you don't make things happen on the land. People are the support base and the delivery system for managing healthy, diverse, and productive lands.

Could you discuss the land-management policies of federal agencies in the past, and how they compare with the modern concept of ecosystem management?

When the Forest Service began in the late 1800s, it was driven by conservation ethics and almost single-tree management. This was practiced until shortly after World War II, when the soldiers came home. Then there was prosperity, and there was a tremendous increase in the demand for timber. We were part of turning America into a society of single-family homes. During the 1950s and 1960s, the "can do" culture of the Forest Service led to an increase in timber harvest from about 4 billion board feet in 1950 to 8 to10 billion board feet in the 1960s. Then it oscillated between 9 and 12 billion until the spotted owl injunctions and other controversies of the 1980s.

Starting in the 1960s, a reawakening of the conservation era began with Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring and signaled the start of an era of environmental legislation (from the early 1960s to about 1990)-for example, the Wilderness Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act. With all of these pieces of legislation, society has been pushing us toward the present era of ecosystem management and watershed restoration. But you know, you can't legislate nature. We need to base our decisions on science and be proactive in the political system to provide information to whomever will listen-not the other way around. For example, let's listen to the aquatic ecologists, who know that the streams themselves tell us how we should manage them; the temperature of the water should be determined by such things as groundwater seepage, snow-melt runoff, and rainfall, not politics.

With your background in life science, ecology, and public service, do you have any advice for students who are beginning a career in biology?

The best advice I have for students is that the better grounding you have in basic communication skills-writing, speaking, listening, conversing, persuasion, all those kinds of things—the more successful you will be. For example, in research you can have the best information in the world, but you still have to convince others that your results and conclusions are credible. People skills are more important than ever. In fact, a resource manager of the future is going to be less of a technical expert and more of a facilitator, a catalyst who brings people with diverse points of view together to solve problems. We have a very sophisticated society and lots of technical expertise, but the people who get the most done on the land are those with the best mix of technical and communication skills. I cannot overstate the importance of that.

©2005 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Benjamin Cummings