Reader's View, forest management: Collaborative land efforts need time to work

August 8, 2013 

There’s been a dramatic change in approach for many mainstream environmental groups toward federal forest management in Idaho, and it’s past time that our leaders recognized this change. When they meet on Friday, the Legislature’s Interim Public Lands Subcommittee members would be well-served to appreciate this shift.

In the past, litigation was the tool of choice of many environmental groups to force change on public lands in Idaho and across the West. This litigation not only blocked restoration projects but also dramatically increased analysis requirements that led to what former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth termed “analysis paralysis.” Both of these factors have prevented the Forest Service from addressing the unhealthy conditions of the lands they manage, which have in turn led to larger and more damaging wildfires across the state and degraded watersheds.

This dynamic is changing. Many environmental groups have engaged the decision-making process from a different angle: collaboration. They have chosen to promote their ideals through discussion and support for other interests, including creating jobs and improving economic conditions in rural Idaho communities, rather than through lawsuits. This approach is beginning to bear the fruit of on-the-ground restoration projects that are improving land and water conditions while creating jobs in rural communities.

Near Orofino, restoration projects supported by the Clearwater Basin Collaborative have sold 11 million board feet of timber and accomplished 50,000 acres of forest and watershed restoration in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests. The projects are creating more than one hundred jobs and bringing in millions to the local economy.

Near Council, a job-creating project supported by the Payette Forest Coalition resulted in a contract to harvest 8.3 million board feet and an additional $1 million contract to improve forest roads in the area.

Near Salmon, last summer’s Mustang Fire tested a fuel break supported by the Lemhi Valley Forest Restoration Group. The fuel break was credited with helping slow the spread of this fire.

Yet instead of acknowledging the progress brought about by these collaborative groups, many state and local government leaders have decided it’s better to poke a stick in the eye of these very same environmental groups and federal land managers by demanding control of public forests and rangelands to manage them as they see fit or sell them off to private interests.

We are not here to judge whether state or private management of these lands would be better for Idaho. Nor are we experts in constitutional law. But we are foresters who know progress when we see it. Our motivation is not to criticize past or current attempts to transfer ownership of federal lands to the state, and we certainly are not here to criticize current management of state-owned forests.

But we question why our elected officials would rather invest taxpayer dollars in what will surely be a long and drawn-out process of challenging the federal government’s right to own and manage public lands in Idaho, rather than investing in processes that are achieving results on the ground.

It is our experience that finding agreement among interest groups takes time. It’s too soon to tell whether the efforts of seven different Idaho collaborative groups will continue to bear fruit in Idaho’s rural communities. But we believe it is worth investing in these collaborative groups that are breaking through the gridlock, instead of undercutting these efforts with misguided proposals that will ultimately benefit only lawyers.

Rick Tholen is a retired Idaho forester (U.S. Bureau of Land Management) and wrote this on behalf of fellow retired foresters John Roberts ( Idaho Department of Lands), Jack Lavin ( U.S. Forest Service) and George Bacon (state of Idaho).

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