Whither the U.S. Forest Service?

Jim Furnish, whose 34-year career with the agency culminated in one of the most important public-lands protection measures in the nation’s history, has grappled with this question throughout much of his life.

In his engaging new memoir,Toward a Natural Forest, Furnish outlines how the Forest Service transitioned from a can-do operation with a clear mission—getting out the cut—to an agency striving, and largely failing, to find new reasons to justify its existence.

He also chronicles his own transformation, from gung-ho young forester to passionate advocate for responsible environmental stewardship.

Furnish portrays an agency that grew increasingly at odds with public sentiment during the 1970s and 1980s, as it outstripped the ecological limits of the land it managed. But those in charge insisted on staying the course. The Forest Service sold more timber in 1989—a year racked with litigation and controversy—than in any other year in the agency’s history.

Furnish recalls the reaction of Bob Devlin, former director of timber management for the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest region, when he was asked about a statement by Chief Dale Robertson that “clear-cutting is not an appropriate practice in scenic mountainous areas.”

“Devlin kind of laughed dismissively,” Furnish writes, “as though curing me of my naiveté, and said, ‘Those are just policies. They’re not really binding.’”

The crash came in 1991, with Judge William Dwyer’s decision to protect the northern spotted owl by curtailing logging.

Furnish went on to serve as supervisor of Oregon’s Siuslaw National Forest, where he led a transformation from massive logging to restoration work.

In 1999, then-Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck made Furnish his deputy chief. Furnish helped implement President Clinton’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which protected 58 million acres of national forests.

The author, who retired in 2002, implores “my beloved Forest Service” to embrace a new mission, one that allows for modest timber production but recognizes the many other goods, tangible and intangible, provided by national forests.

“We tried the ‘timber is king’ approach,” Furnish concludes, “and it failed.”

He knows what “primary values” should replace that approach: providing clean water and air, high-quality fish and wildlife habitat and abundant recreation opportunities. That, Furnish says, is a mission that would make the agency proud.

This review was originally published in High Country News.

Toward a Natural Forest: The Forest Service in Transition

By Jim Furnish

Oregon State University

224 pages, $19.95