From the Opinion Editor

As the West burns, how do we bring more light than heat in Idaho’s forest management debate?

On a trip this summer to the Bighorn Crags in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, I was struck by the sight of a few signs hanging from ranches’ front gates that read, “Environmentalists, you own this,” with an image of flames burning a forest. I wasn’t able to discern the rest of the message on these signs or the messenger, but the general message was pretty clear: Environmentalists who oppose logging forests are to blame for the massive wildfires we’ve been having.

Notwithstanding the president’s suggestion that we rake forest floors to mitigate wildfires, there is a serious argument that is being made that the larger and larger wildfires we are having could be averted if we did more logging, that the reason we have such large wildfires and more frequent wildfires is because, in part, our forests are “littered” with fuels – i.e., dead trees – therefore thinning the forests and reducing these fuels would reduce wildfires.

There are cynical arguments on both sides. “Oh sure, the ones who are arguing for increased logging are — surprise, surprise — loggers. Of course, once they’re done with the forests, there won’t be any wildfires — because there will be no trees left to burn.”

The other side of the cynical argument says, “These tree huggers just don’t want anyone to do anything in the forest.”

The truth, I believe, lies somewhere in the middle. Most of us (and that includes environmentalists) want sensible regulations that protect our forests so that we don’t wake up one morning and find out some private landowner or some logging company has “raped” (as one private forest owner put it) our favorite patch of forest. But neither am I convinced that logging companies want to simply clear-cut our forests until there’s nothing left.

This is a – forgive the puns – burning question in the West right now, and I think there’s been more heat than light in the debate. As someone who ventures into Idaho’s backcountry on a regular basis and who has had trips to the forest affected by wildfires, I am personally curious and concerned about the issue and I want to learn more.

Last month, Statesman editor Christina Lords and I went on a two-day junket to North Idaho put on by the Idaho Forest Products Commission, which has put on this tour annually for the past 20 years for the benefit of journalists, legislators, and other decision makers and opinion leaders in Idaho.

For full disclosure, the commission, created by the Legislature in 1992, is funded by mandatory assessments paid solely by the forest industry, including sawmills and other forest products manufacturers, logging and trucking businesses, and large forest land owners. The tour we went on was fully paid by the commission. That included a flight from Boise to Coeur d’Alene and back on a state airplane, one night’s stay in a Red Lion hotel in Post Falls, all meals, including a dinner and drinks on a boat trip from Coeur d’Alene to Post Falls, and a bus tour to various sites for the purpose of education.

We visited such places as a lumber mill, a clear-cutting operation in the mountains, a working tree farm and Farragut State Park to listen to a series of speakers, including U.S. Forest Service employees, the Idaho state forester, and several scientists with the Idaho Department of Lands, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, and Idaho Fish and Game. We also heard from someone from the Idaho Lands Council, an environmental group that’s seeking to work with logging companies to allow the cutting of trees while protecting the environment at the same time.

Others on the trip included state legislators, university professors, state government employees and representatives from the offices of our congressional delegation.

There was some opinion and advocacy that was going on during the trip, but the vast majority of it was fact-based and purely informational. I liken it, as a journalist, to having an opportunity to interview 25 people within a two-day span.

Over the next couple of days, I’ll share some of the details we learned on the trip, with the goal of having an open discussion about potential solutions to the wildfire problem in Idaho and the West. I’m open to your feedback, criticism and just general information to share in the conversation.

Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at smcintosh@idahostatesman.com or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.

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This column shares the personal opinions of Idaho Statesman opinion editor Scott McIntosh on current issues in the Treasure Valley, in Idaho and nationally. It represents one person’s opinion and is intended to spur a conversation and solicit others’ opinions. It is intended to be part of an ongoing civil discussion with the ultimate goal of providing solutions to community problems and making this a better place to live, work and play. Readers are encouraged to express their thoughts by submitting a letter to the editor. Click on “Submit a letter or opinion” at idahostatesman.com/opinion.

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Always full of opinions and tolerant of others, Scott McIntosh is the opinions editor for the Idaho Statesman. He has won dozens of state and national awards, including Best Editorial from the Idaho Press Club for 2017.
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