Born in Stevens Point, Wisconsin and raised in Sawyer County, Dombeck worked as a fishing guide for 11 summers in the Hayward area. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and earned a B.S. in biology and general sciences and an M.S.T. in biology and education degrees. He attended the University of Minnesota, earning an M.S. in Zoology and later earned a PhD from Iowa State University in 1984. His research included studies on the movement, behavior, reproduction, and early life ecology of the muskellunge, Wisconsin's state fish. He was Program Chairman of the 1st International Muskellunge Symposium held in 1984 with proceedings published by the American Fisheries Society.
He married Patricia Rider in 1975 and they have one daughter, Mary.
After three years of teaching zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Dombeck joined the United States Forest Service (USFS) as a fisheries biologist on the Hiawatha National Forest. He held additional Forest Service assignments throughout the Midwest and California, focused on both aquatic research and fisheries management, after which he was promoted to National Fisheries Program Manager for the USFS where he led the integration of aquatic resources considerations into national forest management and the Rise to the Future Program. He spent a year in 1989 as a LEGIS Fellow working in the U.S. Senate on agriculture and appropriations issues.
At the beginning of the George H. W. Bush administration, Dombeck was assigned as Special Assistant to the Director of the Bureau of Land Management and later was named Science Advisor. At the beginning of the Clinton Administration, he was assigned Acting Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Lands and Minerals Management. In 1994 he was appointed Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management by Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt. Dombeck held that position until 1997 when Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman named him the 14th Chief of the U.S. Forest Service.
Dombeck's time at the BLM was marked by a variety of successes that focused the agency's management on wildlife protection, riparian and aquatic resources and InFish. Dombeck worked closely with then Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas to increase the two agencies' cooperation and sustainability and ecosystem based management and watershed restoration.
As US Forest Service Chief, Michael Dombeck's overarching principle for the nation's public lands was, and still is, that of Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt: To provide "the greatest good for the greatest number."
His work at the USFS reflected this ideal. In 1997 with the Forest Service Leadership team a four-point agenda was crafted. It became known as The Natural Resources Agenda which emphasized four major topics; watershed health and restoration, ecologically sustainable forest and grasslands management, recreation and a long-term forest roads policy which was outlined in a speech titled "A Gradual Unfolding of a National Purpose." Dombeck also added emphasis to the importance of clean water as a forest a product and appointed a task force of scientists and economists to the quantity and value of water flowing from the National Forests.
The major achievement under Dombeck’s leadership was the development of the Roadless Rule which protected 58 million acres of the most remote national forest lands. Dombeck laid his proposal for roadless area management in a speech to the 73rd Annual Outdoor Writers’ Association in Greensboro, North Carolina on June 27, 2000. In that speech he proposed 1) vastly prohibiting road building on 58 million acres of roadless area - citing a lack of funds for their maintenance – and, 2) deferring other major decisions regarding roadless areas to local planners and managers, allowing them to determine how best to protect local lands while protecting their social and ecological value. This proposal, Dombeck believed, would lay the groundwork for enhancing and increasing Americans’ experiences in the nation’s forests by protecting million acres of the remaining wildest places which provide the highest quality back country hunting and fishing experiences in the US, as well as protecting watershed health and ecosystem function.as well as improve the quality of watersheds and ecosystems.
Dombeck retired from federal service in 2001 due to the lack of support of roadless area protection by the George W. Bush administration. He was granted the highest award in career federal service, the Presidential Rank-Distinguished Executive Award, in 2001. He was the only person to have led the nation's two largest public land management agencies.
After retiring from federal service, Dombeck took a position as Professor of Global Conservation at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and was later named UW System Fellow, where he served from 2001 to 2010. He currently serves as Executive Director of the David Smith Post Doctoral Fellowship in conservation biology (since 2005), as a trustee of the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread (since 2002), Trout Unlimited (since 2010), and the Wisconsin chapter of The Nature Conservancy (since 2009).
Dombeck has authored, co-authored, and edited more than 200 popular and scholarly publications, including the books Watershed Restoration: Principles and Practices and From Conquest to Conservation: Our Public Lands Legacy.
Dombeck has received the following awards:Ansel Adams Award, 2010
Aldo Leopold Restoration Award, 2009
Fellow, Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, 2008
Honorary Doctorate, Haverford University, 2007
Wisconsin Idea Professor, University of Wisconsin System, 2004
Sustained Achievement Award, Renewable Natural Resources Foundation, 2003
Distinguished Service Award, Society for Conservation Biology, 2003
Audubon Medal, National Audubon Society, 2002
Lady Bird Johnson Conservation Award, 2002
Edgar Wayburn Award, Sierra Club, 2002
Presidential Rank – Distinguished Executive Award, 2001
Chief Emeritus, United States Forest Service, 2001
Honorary Doctor of Public Service, Northland College, Ashland, WI, 2001
Chair's Award, Natural Resources Council of America, 2001
Conservation Hero of the Year, The Wilderness Society, 2001
Conservationist of the Year, National Wildlife Federation, 2001
Man of the Year, American Sportfishing Association, 1999
Outdoor Life Magazine Annual Conservation Award, 1999
Secretary’s Award for Outstanding Federal Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1999
Wetlands Conservationist Award, Ducks Unlimited, 1998
Distinguished Alumnus, University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point, 1997
President's Fishery Conservation Award, American Fisheries Society, 1996