Former USDA forest service chief closes river symposium
By BETSY BLOOM / Of the Tribune staff
Clean water and the use of off-road vehicles in natural areas will be among the hottest conservation issues in the 21st century, the former head of the U.S. Forest Service said Thursday.
The underground aquifers that supply drinking water for much of the United States are becoming depleted, said Michael Dombeck, who was chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service from 1997 to 2001.
Forests provide the cleanest runoff to augment this dwindling water supply - which makes protecting the nation's limited woodlands even more crucial, said Dombeck, now a professor of global environmental management at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
"A basic policy, not only for public land but for all land, first and foremost, ought to be watershed conservation," he said. Speaking to about 160 people, Dombeck outlined what he predicts will be the top 10 conservation issues in the new century to close out the four-day "Gathering of Waters" symposium on river ecology at Viterbo University.
Dombeck said that while he was in Washington, the most common question field officers raised was how much they could hold back the use of vehicles in the wilderness.
"We have more people wanting to go more places with better equipment," Dombeck said. Lawmakers have been reluctant in the past to restrict this movement - "in a sense, that is somewhat a part of our culture that we have to overcome," he said.
Among the other environmental concerns Dombeck hopes the federal government will address:
- Re-writing mining laws shaped in the late 1800s "by miners for miners" that give access to federal lands with little oversight and few fees or royalties.
- Maintaining a fire policy that recognizes fire as a natural "cleaning cycle" for forests.
- Stemming the invasion of exotic plant and animal species that now threaten to drive out native flora and fauna.
- Reducing fragmentation of undeveloped lands and loss of old-growth forest and bio-diversity, and promoting private land conservation and urban forestry.
The last key issue is education, Dombeck said. He was encouraged by programs in La Crosse like Longfellow Middle School's School on the River, saying that getting people in urban areas connected to the land was the best way to foster conservation efforts in the future.
As symbols of their national heritage, Egypt has its pyramids and Athens its temples to the Greek gods, Dombeck noted. "In the United States," he said, "we have our public lands."
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