On May 26, 2016 an American conservation legend passed. Jack Ward Thomas represents perhaps the most successful conservationist of the post-Leopoldian generation. In the 1940s, Aldo Leopold helped us be aware every “cog and wheel” in Nature had value. Since the 1960s, Dr. Thomas was on the front lines of conservation figuring out how to intelligently tinker with Nature without losing all those pieces.
Most Americans remember the spotted owl controversy. This conundrum was symbolic of that tension Leopold spoke to…attempting to keep all species while milking what we could from the Earth. Jack Ward Thomas is most widely recognized (and despised) as the spotted owl biologist.
Last year Dr. Thomas completed his autobiography, Forks in the Trail, that I highly recommend to every conservation professional and those interested in conserving Nature. In one of the most honest and riveting sections, Dr. Thomas describes his empathy for the loggers that feared logging restrictions needed to save the spotted owl (and other species dependent upon old growth forest). I include a few passages below to give a sense of his ability to diagnose the situation he found himself…his ability to manage his triggers and see the big picture – and to mobilize and inspire others to do what the law required.
“The leaders of the USFS made it clear to successive administrations and Congresses that timber was being harvested from the national forests at unsustainable rates, given inadequate coincident investments in forest management….The full funding for intensive timber management and road management never came, so it was inevitable that timber yields from the national forests ratcheted downward and then essentially collapsed in the early 1990s. That collapse was abetted by the USFS’s difficulty in meeting politically imposed timber targets while trying to simultaneously comply with a veritable onslaught of environmental laws.”
“It was clear that impacts on the timber industry and on county and federal treasuries would be sudden and dramatically negative…..Significant social, economic, and political adjustments would be required in the status quo to implement the ISC [Interagency Scientific Committee] strategy….hard core activists of the environmental persuasion accused the ISC of ‘selling out to the timber interests.’ Those concerned with the welfare of the timber industry regarded the ISC report as ‘overkill’ and ‘collusion with environmental extremists.’
“Those whose economic welfare depended on continued harvests of old-growth timber, along with their rightfully concerned elected officials, desperately wanted to believe that there has to be a better – cheaper way – than that prescribed by the ISC….that would allow continued cutting of significant amounts of timber from old-growth forests on federal lands…Then in an unprecedented move the ISC was put ‘on trial’ in an adversarial hearing in front of an administrative law judge in Portland…The ‘trial’ was arranged by the secretary of the interior, Manual Lujan….The situation was bizarre – and becoming more so by the day. The Bush administration was putting its own employees – scientists and experts that it had assigned and charged with the task – through a hearing with the full hope and intent of shredding their credibility. After my turn on the witness stand being ‘defrocked’ for several hours, the hearing officer declared a recess. As I stepped outside for a breath of fresh air, I was approached by the grand old man of timber industry lobbyists in the Pacific Northwest. For many years he had been the industry’s primary spokesman, advocate, and dispenser of support to favored political candidates….He focused his ire on me as the nominal leader of the ISC. He stood close and said in his deep gravelly voice, ‘I know you boys think you’ve saved the old growth. Shit, kid, we’ve already cut the old growth! Live with it! What you’ve saved is nothing but the leftover crap. And in the end we’ll get that too!”
After the ISC recommendations were ignored by the Bush administration the courts called for enforcement of a ban on logging of old growth. During this time, Dr. Thomas was a hated man. He was vilified in the press and in yard signs. A dummy with his name hung in effigy in one logging town. Yet, he took those insults as data that told him how people were feeling about the situation – about him in his professional role. His humor was inspiring and on display in one interaction in an airport: “Say, mister, did anybody ever tell you that you look just like that spotted owl biologist guy – Jack Ward Thomas?’ ‘Well, yes, several people have told me that over the past few months.’ He gave me a sympathetic look. ‘Geez, man! That must really piss you off!’ I nodded, ‘Sometimes.”
His humility and courage surely helped prepare him for the toll the situation would take on his personal life: “Our family had lived in La Grande for nearly two decades. Margaret and I were active in the community and acquainted with hundreds of people. Margaret was perhaps better known locally as the result of her musical endeavors, church activities, and club work than I. Most folks, and nearly all of our friends, treated us as they always had. A few, however, ceased to speak to us or otherwise made their negative feelings toward us obvious. That was painful. On the other hand, we could not help but empathize with their distress.” Speaking of tampering with his vehicle and Molotov cocktails left on his doorstep he remarked, “The message was clear, I should be afraid – very afraid!”
After a chance encounter and courageous conversation with the owner of a small logging business he wrote, “I drove away. Several miles out of Forks, emotions welled up that I could not choke down, and I pulled over and let the tears come. People, real people – with hopes and dreams and families – were paying a terrible price for what, as ordained by law and court decisions and belated concern for ecosystems thousands of years in their creation, now had to be faced. The steadily increasing timber harvest from public lands had evolved from being considered ‘good forest management’ to ‘sins of the past’ to a new and belated paradigm of ‘ecosystem management.’ It didn’t matter how right and how logical those ‘sins’ had seemed when committed. Time and circumstances change. The bill, long delayed and even denied, had suddenly come due. My colleagues and I were simply the delivery boys. Being on the receiving end, no doubt, was dramatically worse.”
From what I can gather Jack Ward Thomas was the right person for the job of leading us through a pivotal adaptation. He was a rare bird. He understood and retained an ability to think like a scientist. Yet he was emotionally intelligent too. He understood people.
Maybe it was his humble, rural roots. He could relate with blue-collar people. He seemed to never forget his roots in rural Texas. But he could see the power of science. His ability to adapt yet appreciate, and understand, those who wouldn’t was perhaps a key to his success. I can’t know. But maybe it was a combination of those reasons that he was selected by the Bush administration to tackle the spotted owl mess.
With Forks in the Trail, conservation professionals can understand what helped Jack Ward Thomas rise from a state biologist to the head of the US Forest Service to university professor. Readers will have a sense for what today’s conservation professional can expect to face in a world of increasingly controversial conservation conflicts. Saving every “cog and wheel” is becoming more political. As more humans inhabit the Earth and consume more resources conflict is inevitable. But with humility, curiosity and courage, the women and men on the front lines of conservation will be as successful as Dr. Thomas – the conservation legend that led us through a pivotal period in American conservation.