Jack Ward Thomas and Conservation

The best move I ever made was coming to Oregon from Las Vegas, Nevada, and then signing on to work with Jack Thomas for Forest Service Research. A gruff Texan, his talk was laced with hilarious sayings and down home stories that are the birthright of everyone from the Lone Star state. I’d often be falling out of my chair laughing, but there was always  message behind that talk and it’s what separated him from others.

Jack was a real scientist, a big thinker, his beliefs deeply rooted in the older discipline of conservation, the one adopted by Gifford Pinchot who was one of Jack’s heroes. An orgy of greed in the late 19th century had strip-mined millions of acres of forestlands. The hustlers had cut prime timberlands, often obtaining deeds through theft and blackmail. They left with cash in hand while the boom-and-bust cycle of resource extraction bled the land dry.

Pinchot, a professional forester, was tasked by Teddy Roosevelt with starting the Forest Service as a way of rebuilding that devastated landscape and nurturing what remained. That meant conserving resources so that they could be sustainably managed. From that period arose the National Forest System. Even more than our National Parks, those lands are the gift we gave ourselves and that we leave our children.

Jack really carried that conservation ethic inside him, a belief that we could and should maintain healthy plant and animal populations even as we made use of the resources of the natural world. Society has increasingly come around to that view with the current emphasis on sustainability. Along with his good friend and mentor Bill Brown, he lived those beliefs. Together, they spent weeks trailing pack strings into Hells Canyon, a place both loved dearly. His time in the wilderness gave Jack a clear understanding of the natural world and that’s what he brought to his job, one that eventually took him to Washington D.C. as the Forest Service Chief. For all of us who worked with him, it was hardly a surprise.

In the 1980s, political demands had superseded common sense, with the agency pushed and prodded into a completely unsustainable harvest regime, one that was destroying ecosystems. The spotted owl was the designated red flag, a creature so dependent on intact forest ecosystems, that its demise was a clear signal we had to pull back or lose it all. Like the canary in the coal mine, the bird was only a messenger warning of the dangers that lay ahead.

Just as in Pinchot’s era, it was time to redefine our priorities. What better man than Jack to take that task on? A professional approach to everything he did and a belief in science serving the public good were his hallmark. He was the right man at the right time to bring us back to the conservation ethic. Future generations owe him a debt of gratitude.

His management style was a rare thing. He invited challenges and contrasting viewpoints. He was sure that he could only arrive at the truth once he felt the passion of the arguments his scientist and staff brought to the table. All of it laid the path for top-notch science, real knowledge about real things.

He eventually found his way back to the West he loved, and the Boone and Crockett chair in Wildlife Management at the University of Montana. There he could himself mentor the next generation of professionals, something he really enjoyed. Wildlife management is all the better for his work and his life, and we’re all the better for having known him.

It was the best move I ever made, moving to Oregon. I met my wife and I got to work for and with Jack Thomas. I couldn’t have asked for more.