Letters From the West

Idaho GOP Chairman: Why can’t federal judge order timber salvage sales?

The Idaho Department of Lands is seeking to quickly sell fire-damage trees before they deteriorate after an especially hot burn. (IDL photo)

The Idaho Department of Lands is seeking to quickly sell fire-damaged trees before they deteriorate after an especially hot burn. (IDL photo)

The Idaho Republican Party put out a press release this week calling on state political leaders to lead the fight for the public lands “that rightfully belong to the people of Idaho.”

“We clearly remember that the best government is the government closest to the people,” said Chairman Barry Peterson of Mountain Home.

I had a pleasant conversation with Peterson this morning before I saw the press release. He wanted to talk to me about salvage logging and did not even bring up the issue of the GOP-controlled Legislature’s resolution demanding the federal government transfer the more than 32 million acres of federal land in Idaho to the state.

A lot of Elmore County burned this year and the state is salvaging a lot of timber right now before it loses its value. Unfortunately, the logs are rolling to Oregon because the nearest mill in Idaho is north of Council.

The wood standing on the national forest lands will stay there.

“It makes my heart hurt to seek it standing there and absolutely go to waste,” Peterson said.

He’s a former county commissioner and he remembers 20 years ago when Boise National Supervisor Steve Mealey was seeking to get approval for a massive salvage sale after the Foothills Fire, that burned in the same area that burned again this year. Peterson remembered that environmentalists opposed the sale.

He didn’t remember that University of Idaho Forestry professor Leon Neuenschwander also opposed the size of the salvage cut the Forest Service proposed. Eventually a smaller harvest was approved but Peterson was disappointed because a lot less money went into the coffers of local schools and counties who got 25 percent of the timber receipts.

I told Paterson that today the timber industry, the forestry association and environmentalists have been sitting down together and finding common ground around forest restoration. They are pushing together for more logging projects all over the state, including in his back yard.

I noted that similar talks in Oregon got support even for salvage logging projects as the trust between the two groups grew. I said environmentalists had even gotten behind federal financing for the Emmett saw mill, which unfortunately went bankrupt.

Peterson did not dismiss the idea of collaboration. Instead he quizzed me about why the Idaho Education Association doesn’t pull a tool out of the environmentalists’ old playbook.

“Why couldn’t a federal judge take the forest service to court and present the argument that this is a valuable resource that is important to the funding of the school children?” He asked.

I don’t see the legal case that gets a judge to that kind of a choice, I said. Indeed I thought there was more chance that a judge might force Idaho to raise taxes so that kids who live in places like Salmon and Orofino get as good of schools as students in Boise.

Peterson remembers when the Mountain Home Ranger District office was in a private residence on American Legion Boulevard in Mountain Home. He wanted to be a forest ranger when he was a kid but ended up a businessman and now owns a hardware store.

He shares the frustration of many Idahoans who remember when there were timber mills across southern Idaho including in Mountain Home. “Now the (Forest Service) staff is 10 times at large and yet they don’t cut any timber anymore,” he said.

The issue goes deeper than the Forest Service. It’s about how divided this nation has become and our inability to find common ground to do anything it seems, I said. Even if the environmentalists signed off on a massive program to cut all the trees burned by the Pony and Elk Complex fires it could not  happen right now.

That’s because all current timber sales on national forests have been halted nationwide by the government shutdown. There aren’t people to mark the trees.

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.

Posted in Letters from the West