Idaho’s top elected official views shepherding the state through the recession as his greatest accomplishment as he prepares to leave office at the end of the year.
The state’s annual budget dropped from $3.2 billion in 2007 when he became governor to $2.2 billion in 2010, said Butch Otter, who spoke Tuesday at Idaho Forest Group’s 2018 contractors meeting at the University of Idaho.
“You look in your own households. You look in your own little companies. When you lose 34 percent of your income, some tough decisions have to be made,” Otter said.
The state constitution, he said, led legislators and him to make education a top priority as they eliminated the “nice” and focused on the “necessary.”
“It was our future,” he said. “That was a no-brainer.”
Otter said he took a lot of heat for an 80 percent reduction in the state’s parks budget, but not a single one of the 30 parks closed because of the cut.
Idaho’s elected officials selected priorities so well that a decade later, it has become the nation’s fastest-growing state.
“That means we did something right, and people recognize that discipline. (They say Idaho is) where we want to be,” Otter said.
That same type of long-term thinking was in play, he said, with an effort that originated with Idaho Forest Group.
The lumber company provided seed money in Idaho that went along with an expansion of the “Good Neighbor Authority” in the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill under the Barack Obama administration.
Under the initiative, Idaho state foresters evaluate U.S. Forest Service land in Idaho for health, identifying areas to be logged to help with problems such as overgrowth and pest management. The foresters design cuts to provide the greatest ecological benefit possible, forging consensus between industry and environmentalists.
Idaho has increased the number of foresters it employs from one to 12 as part of the effort.
“This is what happens when you are really serious about it,” Otter said.
The collaboration has been part of what he called a dramatic evolution in his stance on the federal government’s involvement in Western lands.
He shared his views with the president’s son when he was being courted to be secretary of Agriculture, Otter said. Donald Trump Jr. wondered if he believed federal land should to be shifted to private ownership.
Otter said he agreed with that position during the Sagebrush Rebellion in 1976. That was when ranchers in the West objected to a change in the Bureau of Land Management’s priorities to include some preservation.
“I was right there leading the parade,” he said. “I was so angry with what was happening in Idaho that I thought nobody could screw up a job as bad as the Interior Department and Forest Service had in Idaho.”
Now he wants to be a “sharecropper” on federal land.
“That’s where you own the land, and I manage the land for you,” he said.
Otter called the recent revision to the way federal firefighting money is allocated a historic sign of the federal government’s growing understanding of the needs of the nation’s public lands.
“We finally separated the emergency and urgency of firefighting from having to steal from the management, the tendering and the taking care of the forest,” he said.
The federal government’s commitment to firefighting, he said, will be helped by local citizens’ efforts he has backed.
The issue surfaced in 2007 when a fire Otter said could have been stopped at about 5,000 acres consumed 700,000 acres of habitat for bull trout, pygmy rabbits and slickspot peppergrass. A crew had arrived with equipment to build a fire break, he said, but a BLM employee wouldn’t allow it to be unloaded because a safety officer wasn’t available.
After that, Otter convinced the legislature to approve money for local fire districts that were trained with help from the BLM.
That approach could be repeated in Idaho’s forests, he said, by giving loggers and others who work in the forest the authority to put out blazes when they start and to remain to help.
“You know the land. You know where the hazards are,” he said.
People’s willingness to collaborate on innovative ideas, such as those that benefit public lands, is part of what gives Otter hope as he leaves office.
“Idaho does have a bright future,” he said, “especially if we can continue to set the models.”