Letters from the West

Otter says feds aren’t the enemy, embraces Good Neighbor plan

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter addresses legislators at the Capitol Monday.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter addresses legislators at the Capitol Monday. AP

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has come a long way from his sagebrush rebel days.

If you were looking to pick a fight with the federal government over public land management, Otter was ready to join your posse.

He acknowledged as much when he talked last fall at the second workshop of the Western Governors’ National Forest and Rangeland Management Initiative.

“I always thought they were the enemy,” he told a crowd of ranchers, timber company executives, loggers, conservation groups and federal land managers in October.

His description of his own transformation shows how, when we engage with people who don’t necessarily share our opinion or experiences, we can change for the better. Otter talked about how he had learned that the federal employees “who drink our water, attend our churches and live in our neighborhoods” can be advocates for the state’s best interests.

“When they become part of our neighborhoods, part of our community, they are part of our culture, they are part of our vision,” Otter said.

As a congressman in 2005, Otter co-sponsored a bill to sell off some federal land to help pay the cost of hurricane relief. He backed off after Jerry Brady, his 2006 Democratic gubernatorial opponent, made it a campaign issue. Since then Otter has consistently opposed transferring the 60 percent of Idaho public land managed by the federal government, he said because he’s seen the bill for fighting fires.

Several federal initiatives have turned around Otter’s thinking. In his State of the State address he praised Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s Good Neighbor Authority, granted to states in the 2014 farm bill, which allows Idaho to sell timber off of national forest lands that are part of landscape-restoration efforts.

In the budget proposal he outlined Monday, Otter included $250,000, the first state money, to hire foresters to set up timber sales in areas where the Forest Service has already completed environmental review and reached consensus through existing collaborative groups. Those groups bring together timber people, local officials, tribes, anglers, hunters, motorized recreation groups and conservation groups to development consensus management plans.

The state auctioned off its first timber sale on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests in September after using federal and other funds to hire foresters in 2016. The state already is expanding the program into the Payette and Panhandle national forests.

The sale proceeds go into separate pots in each area of the state to make the program self-sustaining. Timber companies also have committed to pay $1 million to get the program going.

The Nez Perce-Clearwater in north-central Idaho now sell about 60 million board feet annually, nearly double what was sold a decade ago but half of the historic harvest levels. Forest Supervisor Cheryl Probert predicted that the Good Neighbor Authority could add another 10 million board feet of timber a year when the program is expanded.

But the program does more than cut timber and provide jobs, Probert said. It funds stream-restoration projects, trail maintenance, thinning to reduce fire threats around communities and other projects the collaborative groups endorse. It’s one more tool to empower local stewardship.

Nearly all of the conservation groups operating in the state participate in collaboration in one form or another, including the Idaho Conservation League, the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

But some groups, like Friends of the Clearwater and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, still oppose most logging on public lands and use the courts to try to stop projects the collaborative groups support.

Other groups, like the small-government Idaho Freedom Foundation, got the Idaho Legislature to pass a law that lets county sheriffs or county commission chairmen declare a “catastrophic public nuisance” if they don’t like federal management. And some in Congress want to gut environmental laws to roll over the conservation groups at the collaborative tables.

There are people on both sides not acting like good neighbors.

And there are people such as Clearwater County Commissioner Don Ebert, of Weippe, who wants environmental reviews to be “more consistent, more predictable and more efficient.” That may mean changes his friend Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League in Boise won’t love, but Ebert doesn’t want Congress to do something that would break up the collaboratives and drive Oppenheimer away.

“That we all sit at the same table is a huge success in and of itself,” Ebert said.

Now, that old sagebrush rebel Otter has pulled up a chair and wants to be a good neighbor with the Forest Service and its collaborative partners. Ebert is optimistic.

“I believe people who are successful are people who don’t give up,” Ebert said. “We have the opportunity to be greatly successful if we keep chipping away at it.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker