Letters From the West

Timber industry offers alternative to state takeover of public land

Timber industry representatives called for changes in federal land management laws they said were discouraging active management. But several said that reform of laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act can’t be made by the Legislature.

They testified Monday to the Idaho Legislature’s Interim Committee on Federal Lands. The Committee was formed when the Legislature passed a resolution demanding the federal government turn over all of federal lands to the state. But the committee will decide by 2015 whether to push the idea or another to resolve its concerns over federal land management.

“We know that change has to come from Washington D.C. and likely won’t come from Boise,” said Jerry Deckard, speaking for 400 log hauling contractors.

The timber industry is focused on the 23.5 percent of Forest Service land nationally that is currently designated for timber production, said Robert Boeh, vice president of Idaho Forest Group, which has five sawmills in Idaho employing 800 people.

The industry wants as much certainty the agency can manage those lands for timber as it does now for wilderness, Boeh said. To do this he supports federal legislation that would clarify to the courts that timber production is the primary objective on this portion of national forests, set clear volume and acreage targets to ensure accountability and the streamline the environmental laws.

He would subsitute the current appeals process for what he called “baseball arbitration,” to resolve disputes. Opposing parties would be required to submit their vision of how the conflict would be resolved and the arbitrator would pick the one they considered the best for all.

He said Idaho’s Department of Lands could contract with the Forest Service to lay out and administer timber sales and could use a new Department of Agriculture “good neighbor program” to manage adjacent or intermingled lands that people agreed could be managed for timber production.

Overall this could lead to 3 million acres of national forest in Idaho managed for timber production outside of wilderness and roadless areas cutting an additional 300 million board feet annually, creating 5,100 jobs.

That’s less than half what the Idaho Department of Lands said could be managed for timber production in its “napkin approach” estimate to the committee.

Tribal, conservation sporting groups and recreation groups all expressed a preference for the collaborative approach to management they have be engaged in with the timber industry and others on the Clearwater and Nez Perce national forests and up in Boundary County and Payette County. That has 131 million board feet of timber in various stages of approval on the way to mills, said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League.

Every group, from the Idaho Cattle Association to the timber industry expressed support for the collaborative process. But Boeh, whose company is deeply involved in several collaborative groups said its slow and costly.

“Collaboration is a tool to be used, its not a solution to the problem,” he said.

Jim Riley, a natural resource consultant, whose idea for a pilot program that would put a trust led by the state in charge of managing 200,000 acres of forest is part of a bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, urged the state to continue its takeover efforts along with other states. But he also urged them to support his idea, Boeh’s and the idea of private contractors managing federal land.

The state takeover effort also was embraced by Weiser rancher Harry Soulen, president of the Idaho Woolgrower’s Association.

“Most of the people in the sheep industry would be supportive of that,” Soulen said.

But other livestock groups wanted dramatic changes in the state grazing leasing program to give them the exclusive preference they get with the federal permit. The state allows competitive bidding.

The Idaho Department of Lands said the state couldn’t make a profit from grazing lands.

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