Letters From the West

Forest wars echo through Idaho public land transfer debate

The mixed ownership of state, private and national forest lands adjacent to Dworshak Reservoir on the North Fork of the Clearwater River in North Idaho.(Rocky Barker/rbarker@idahostatesman.com

The mixed ownership of state, private and national forest lands adjacent to Dworshak Reservoir on the North Fork of the Clearwater River in North Idaho.(Rocky Barker/rbarker@idahostatesman.com

Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik is one of the most passionate voices for a state takeover of public lands.

He can provide chapter and verse for the obscure legal argument that a Utah lawmaker developed with states-rights legal scholars showing why western states should expect to have the federal government dispose of all of its land here like they did in eastern states.

But Chemelik, who attended the Idaho Legislature’s Interim Committee on Federal Lands, also has supported the Clearwater Collaborative, which has brought together environmentalists, tribal leaders, the timber industry, motorized recreation groups and sporting groups to reduce conflict and improve forest management.

Like any smart elected official he’ll work for anything that can brings jobs or a improved services to his constituents. So in our discussion he repeated what many observers of Idaho resource policy have said in frustration.

The problem is that policy swings from one extreme to the other. In the 1970s and 1980s the Forest Service was cutting lots of timber but also building miles of roads and sending tons of silt into streams and destroying wildlife habitat.

Today there is far less logging and clearcutting on national forest lands but massive fires are sending silt into streams, destroying the roads that are left. But the timber industry can now harvest trees with far fewer impacts.

Craig Gehrke, the director of the Boise office of the Wilderness Society, testified Monday against the state takeover. His group has become one of the central players in the collaborative groups that are increasing logging again on the national forests. Despite their wide differences, Gehrke and Chemelik are partners in the Clearwater Collaborative.

Gehrke called me up in the late 1980s as Sen. James McClure and the Idaho timber industry were leaning on the Forest Service to increase the allowed harvest of the Clearwater Forest to 220 million board feet. To do that the agency would have to cut in 200,000 acres of roadless lands.

Gehrke told me then he would support the industry cutting responsibly on the roaded section of the national forests if it would stay out of the roadless sections.

I called Jim Riley, then the director of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association and asked if that was possible. No way, Riley, said, saying that such a limitation would force mill closings and reduce the timber supply throughout the region, hurting the rural economy.

Gehrke’s group went to court along with others and eventually won. The Clinton Administration established the roadless rule that shutoff 9 million acres of Idaho’s 20 million acres of national forest. The Idaho Roadless Rule, which Gehrke fought and Riley supported, reopened the possibility of harvesting timber in some roadless areas near communities to reduce fire risk.

On Monday Robert Boeh, vice president of the Idaho Forest Group, which operates 5 sawmills and employees 800 people offered a alternative that would focus on the roaded portion of the national forest that is the highest quality for timber production. In essense, he is proposing what Gehrke wanted in the 1980s.

Riley, acknowledged Boeh’s plan but he has his own plan that Rep. Raul Labrador is carrying to set up forest trusts run by the state. The forest war veteran didn’t discourage Idaho from pushing its legal case for federal takeover.

He said outright state ownership was “A fruitful avenue to pursue.”

His counterpart Gehrke told the committee he and many conservation groups national simply don’t trust Idaho with America’s public lands.

You stopped Fish and Game from managing wolves,” Gehrke told the committee. “You told Fish and Game to go shoot bighorns.”

And Gehrke, who grew up on an Idaho ranch, answered his Clearwater partner Commissioner Chmelik’s complaint of the unfairness that western states were not treated like eastern states.

“Who the hell wants Idaho to look like an eastern state,” Gehrke said.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

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