Jack Ward Thomas, 1934 – 2016

Jack Ward Thomas, the thirteenth Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, passed away May 26, 2016. He served during the Clinton administration years of 1993 – 1996.

Below is a tribute to Chief Thomas released May 27 by the current Chief, Tom Tidwell.


jwthomasI want to take a moment to reflect on the recent passing of a former leader of the Forest Service team, Jack Ward Thomas. Jack passed May 26 after battling cancer the last few years.  Jack took on his last challenge just like he did everything:  using science, being optimistic, and accepting reality, and being straightforward.  I will miss Jack, not only for his dedication to science and his conservation leadership, but also for his stories.  Even when he and I were in a lively debate, Jack would have me laughing before we were done.  In addition to his many individual accomplishments and recognitions, Jack will be remembered as a dedicated scientist for — through his work– science was elevated and took its’ rightful place, providing solutions to conservation challenges.

Jack was Forest Service Chief from 1993 to 1996.  During his tenure and throughout the rest of his life, he provided invaluable contributions to forestry and conservation issues, leaving a lasting legacy of achievements.  He was the epitome of leadership in “Caring for the land, and serving people” when he was with us.

Jack began his Forest Service career in 1966, in Morgantown, West Virginia as a research wildlife biologist.  In the years that followed, he developed an amazing career as an agency scientist.  He served in a variety of locations, culminating in his selection to lead the Forest Service.

During his tenure, Jack faced numerous challenges, including heavy conflict between the timber industry and the environmental community, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, and a controversial presidential forest plan for the spotted owl regions of the Pacific Northwest and northern California.  Yet through it all, he managed to not only face those challenges, but also to develop a pioneering ecosystem management approach on the national forests and grasslands.

Throughout his life, Jack was a prolific writer, publishing over 250 books, chapters, and articles, primarily on elk, deer, and turkey biology, wildlife disease, wildlife habitat, songbird ecology, northern spotted owl management, and land use planning.  He received multiple awards for his work including USDA Distinguished Service and Superior Service Awards; Elected Fellow, Society of American Foresters; National Wildlife Federation, Conservation Achievement Award for Science; The Aldo Leopold Medal, The Wildlife Society; General Chuck Yeager Award, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; and USDA FS Chief’s Award for Excellence in Technology Transfer.  In addition, he served as president of The Wildlife Society from 1976 to 1977.

In short, Jack was an integral part of Forest Service and other forestry history.  Not only did he shape our forest management philosophy, but he was also a mentor and friend to me and many of today’s environmental conservation leaders, both inside and outside the U.S. Forest Service. He will be greatly missed.

My thoughts and prayers are with the Thomas family.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

4 thoughts on “Jack Ward Thomas, 1934 – 2016”

  1. As a forestry student at the Univ. of Montana in the mid 2000’s I had the privilege of having Jack Ward Thomas as one of my professors. I thought it was incredibly cool to have a former Chief as an instructor and his policy class stands out in my mind as one of my favorites. To this day I still find myself drawing on the knowledge he imparted. His passion for the history of policy and how it has led us to where we are today did the unthinkable…it made learning and applying policy fun. I feel so blessed to have gotten to learn from him and am saddened to hear this news.

  2. Jack was a scientist and the agency was certainly guided by his skills and knowledge during his tenure as the Chief. I don’t have a college decree and my carrier with the forest service was primarily in the technician series in a variety positions in fire management (smokejumper, hotshot superintendent, district FMO) before changing my carrier path to law enforcement. I eventually spent my last year or so as the Assistant Directer Law Enforcement and Investigations, Branch Chief Internal Affairs Investigations, WO. I was privileged to have had at least four personal interactions with the Chief, Jack, that exemplify his feelings in regards to the management and the personnel in the organization he was involved in during the daily operations that made the Forest Service in the mid-1990’s what it is was then!

    The first was when I had to give the Chief, Jack. a briefing regarding timber theft and allegations of interference by managers. He made me feel at ease and listened to the information I was providing asking very detailed and specific questions. He demonstrated sincere concern and said that necessary funds would be available to conduct appropriate inquires or investigations to determine if the allegations had merit.

    The second personal interaction I had with Jack, Chief was when the Oklahoma bombing occurred. The Chief was having a regional forester meeting in a hotel conference room south of D.C. and I was sent to provide security while the meeting was held and continued after reports of the bombing. I wondered the grounds, rooms and open arrears around the conference room to watch for any suspicious activity. At one point I quietly entered the conference room to see that everything was O.K. and the only person that noticed my presence was Jack. He knew why I was there and simply made eye contact with me and gave me his unique smile letting me know that he knew that I was there. After the meeting he made a point to contact me and to tell me that he appreciated that I was there.

    The third occurrence was when the director of law enforcement was not available and I was asked to sit-in for him at a WO staff meeting. During the meeting when two WO Directors got into an argument over differences of opinion, I can still recall Jack turning in his chair and making eye contact with me. He made a subtle jester along with his unique smile knowing how I must have been thinking the same thing, “there were simply more important issues to discuss”?

    In spite of the critical issues and problems the Forest Service was facing in those days, I had a meeting with someone in recreation at the Chiefs office. After the meeting when I has just stepped out of the office waiting for the shuttle back to my office in Arlington when a headline in a newspaper stand outside the office caught my attention. Suddenly the Chief walked up to me as he left the office and made a comment. It was not necessarily a comment about the headline but acknowledgement that he recognized me, and employee of thousands, that he took the effort to say a few words to when he could have easily walked out of the office and went on his way.

    I am sadden by this loss but feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to be a part of Jack’s life.

  3. Hell of a guy, always a smile, and lots of encouragement etc. Worked under him in PNW/R6 on Spotted Owl/Northwest Forest Plan in early 90’s, was really surprised when he became Chief. He was controversial from the get go because he was a scientist, not a forester, helped to change the FS to become more science based instead of just timber centric. I believe he paid the price though, his tenure as Chief was short, when I saw him in the late 90’s, he seemed a bit disillusioned, politics had become more of an influence on FS policies then ever before. RIP JWT

    1. Really, Tom, no one should be surprised his tenure as Chief was “short” — it was actually longer than he and the Administration had intended. Clinton and Gore “drafted” him in late ’93, which Jack initially and vigorously resisted. But his orders were to get in there, kick ass and take names, and get out. (If you recall, the WO got a letter signed by numerous old-time FS upper-level guys who said they’d all hand in their resignations if JWT was appointed … which was definitely to the liking of the Administration.)

      His time at the helm lasted longer than it was supposed to, and when he stepped down, it was in deference to someone else who was gonna take it in the shorts — a negotiated compromise, so to speak.

      He and I were good friends for 30+ years — he taught me to flyfish — and I was always struck by his long-lasting GRIEF about the ’94 fire season. In his latest long years, he still couldn’t speak about South Canyon without choking up. I saw him on two fires that summer — he re-scheduled his DC office duties to go visit firefighters that season — and I’ve talked to dozens of fireline people who said they’d never seen a Chief come to visit them on a fire.

      I remember one in particular, Yaak Valley in Montana, with Fort Hood military crews working, and Jack was SO PROUD of his USFS crews on that fire, working the Army crews into the dirt. 🙂


Comments are closed.