A wildlife biologist/forester whose interests ranged from game species including white-tailed deer, mule deer, wild turkeys, and elk to the intricacies of ecosystem management, Jack Ward Thomas worked 10 years for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department before joining the U.S. Forest Service's Research Division. He was stationed in West Virginia, Massachusetts, and Oregon over a 27-year career in research.
In 1991 he became embroiled in controversial political issues in the Pacific Northwest -- in conserving old growth ecosystems and spotted owl habitat -- which led to the "spotted owl wars" and related controversies. President Bill Clinton appointed Thomas to lead the development of what became known as the Northwest Forest Plan -- which focused on old-growth ecosystems with emphasis on northern spotted owls and other old-growth forest species. He was appointed the thirteenth Chief of the U.S. Forest Service in December of 1993 despite opposition from some environmental groups, the timber industry, and many of the old-guard agency personnel.
In 1994, after the deaths of 34 firefighters during a horrific fire season, Thomas instituted changes in wildland fire safety. "I gave the order and I meant it," he said. "Safety first, on every fire, every time." Years passed without firefighter fatalities on wildfires, and many firefighters still remember the visits that the Forest Service Chief made to fire camps that year.
When Thomas retired from the Forest Service in December 1996 after 30 years of service, he accepted a position at the University of Montana as professor of wildlife conservation, a chair endowed by the Boone and Crockett Club, one of the nation's oldest conservation organizations. He taught graduate students in natural resources policy, joking that he found "pontification much easier than responsibility." After 10 years of teaching, he retired from that position in late 2005. He remains active today in conservation issues - writing, giving presentations, and consulting.
A book of selected entries from the journals that he kept during his years as chief, published in 2004, details his respect for agency employees -- but his assessments of political appointees and certain members of Congress in that book are pointed. His leadership and legacy are remembered by thousands of agency employees; he told them to "tell the truth and obey the law." Jack Ward Thomas meant that, and he "walked the talk" himself.
Over his five-decade professional career, he taught and mentored hundreds of students and employees. "We don't just manage land," he wrote. "We're supposed to be leaders. Conservation leaders. Leaders in protecting and improving the land."