Unkindest Cut

updated 07/06/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/06/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

LAST AUGUST, JOHN MUMMA WAS SITTING in his headquarters at the U.S. Forest Service's northern regional office in Missoula, Mont., when the telephone rang. George M. Leonard, the Forest Service's No. 2 man and Mumma's boss, was calling from Washington, D.C., He wanted to see him—alone. They set up a meeting in the United Airlines Red Carpet room at Denver's Stapleton Airport. Leonard's tone, Mumma recalls, was ominous. "I knew something was going to happen," he says.

The meeting, it turned out, was not only ominous but swift. It lasted 10 minutes and effectively ended Mumma's exemplary 28-year career helping to manage the nation's public forests. Leonard informed Mumma that his refusal to meet his timber quotas was unacceptable: Either he could take a desk job at headquarters in Washington, D.C., or be "separated" from the U.S. Forest Service. "I had tears in my eyes," recalls Mumma, 52, who, other than during an appearance before a congressional committee last September, has rarely spoken publicly about the confrontation. "I said, 'George, I've put the Forest Service ahead of my life and my family for 28 years. I will not take that form of punishment.' "

As a regional forester in charge of 25 million acres of national forests and grasslands, stretching from the Dakotas to Washington State, Mumma was responsible for selling trees to private companies and building logging roads to facilitate their harvest. But the Forest Service's mandate also requires that it protect the environmental health of those same forests. The timber quotas, Mumma maintained in his testimony before Congress, force the agency to violate environmental laws. Because of the erosion that follows clear-cutting—razing all trees in a specified area—many of the mountain streams in his region have became choked with silt, he says. Montana's rare bull trout are dying of asphyxiation, and the largest grizzly-bear population outside of Alaska is threatened by increased road-building and human activity as timber crews carve up its habitat.

Leonard's ultimatum devastated Mumma. He flew home to Missoula, where he and his wife, Myra, 48, saddled up two of their horses and headed out to nearby Lolo National Forest for a pack trip to sort things out. "We spent three days crying," says Mumma. "Myra said she'd be willing to move to Washington, but I told her I couldn't do it. I wouldn't be punished for a wrong I didn't commit."

After a protracted—and unsuccessful—negotiation, Mumma quit the Forest Service in November 1991. His forced retirement further fueled a bitter environmental debate within the agency. "Morale was pretty poor before, but when you see them go after a man of John Mumma's stature, you know we're all in trouble. It sends a clear message to those of us in the field not to make waves," says one ranger, who asked to remain anonymous. Adds David Wilcove, senior ecologist at the Environmental Defense Fund: "Mumma's firing demonstrates that the Bush Administration Forest Service remains first and foremost a tree-cutting company with little regard for the environment."

The logging industry disagrees with that assessment. "Mumma wasn't a good administrator," argues Joe Hinson, executive vice president of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association, a timber trade group. "He didn't carry out his responsibilities as a regional forester."

Mumma's, however, was not an isolated case. Last September, Rep. Gerry Sikorski of Minnesota held congressional hearings into possible intimidation of National Park and Forest Service employees, and he plans to issue a report on his findings this summer. During those hearings, a Park Service regional director, Lorraine Minlzmyer, testified that she was transferred to Philadelphia after refusing to alter a scientific study that advised further protection of the fragile Yellowstone ecosystem.

Until two years ago, Mumma could never have imagined himself as an agency renegade. His parents owned a ranch in the high desert near Farmington, N.Mex. As a boy, he would ride out to the pine forests to study their flora and fauna. "I always loved the woods," he says. "My heart would beat a hundred times a minute just being in the woods on my horse."

Mumma graduated from the University of New Mexico and joined the Forest Service in 1963. Because of his horsemanship, he was assigned to the rugged San Juan National Forest in Colorado. His knowledge of the outdoors and his administrative abilities soon brought him to the attention of Forest Service brass, and in 1985 he was persuaded to take a job at headquarters in Washington, D.C. "They told me it was important for me to understand the 'big picture,' " says Mumma, "but it just about crushed me. It disgusted me to see the power of lobbyists and politicians and the influence they exerted on the forests."

Still, the tour paid off. In 1988, Forest Service Chief F. Dale Robertson named Mumma as regional forester of the northern region—making him the first and only wildlife biologist to hold that position. John and Myra bought a 10-acre ranch in Missoula, near Lolo National Forest. "I thought I had it all," says Mumma.

But Mumma's troubles were just beginning. When he arrived, he found his timber quota set at 1.1 billion board feet. "My scientific and wildlife people were telling me we couldn't meet the quotas without damaging the forests," he says. He tried to compromise, authorizing 85 percent of his quotas, but within several months of his appointment, he was called back to Washington, D.C., by Robertson and told to cut more trees. Eventually, Mumma decided he would rather be cut loose.

Mumma may be rich in ethics, but he is increasingly impoverished otherwise. By resigning four years short of his 55th birthday, he lost not only a $98,000 salary but $1,600 a month from his federal pension. "After the bills, we have about $100 to last us the rest of the month," he says. "It's nip and tuck. We hope we won't lose the ranch."

Recently, Mumma has been walking the Lolo National Forest, examining ponderosa pines, Douglas firs and western larches and assessing the damage done by clear-cutting. The destruction he has seen persuaded him to speak out. "People shouldn't be outraged at what happened to me," Mumma says. "The public should be outraged at what's going on in their forests. Right now they're being managed for the short-term dollar benefit of timber companies. Who they should be managed for is the citizens of the Northwest, the country and, ultimately, future generations."

SUSAN REED
BILL SHAW in Missoula

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