Guest Opinions

Guest Opinion: Idaho’s National Forests need collaboration, not rhetoric

This spring’s drought and unprecedented heat wave should have Idahoans thinking about their national forests — but we should do so in realistic manner, not clouded with political smoke.

Idaho’s national forests are precious to Idahoans and all Americans…the places we hunt, fish, and camp. They are also the source of valuable natural resources, including clean water and timber.

The truth is, Idaho’s forests and forest communities face some very real challenges, ranging from safeguarding communities from wildfire, to fighting weeds, clearing trails, restoring streams, managing roads and supporting thousands of jobs in rural communities. It is likewise true that Idahoans from across the political spectrum have found common cause to resolve these problems, as demonstrated by collaborative efforts across Idaho.

While it would be delightful to promise a quick political fix, it would also be disingenuous. These are complicated issues deserving thoughtful solutions that consider the needs of all stakeholders. That takes time, money and commitment.

Still, that does not stop some political leaders. In a recent opinion piece, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, says he isn’t trying to pull national forests away from their rightful owners — the American people. He’s just trying to set up “an experiment” in local control.

Call in the smokejumpers. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Rep. Labrador said he was hungry for facts, but is fanning the flames with fiction.

In his column on forest management, Labrador repeats misinformation from out-of–state “think tank” PERC. The Property and Environment Research Center alleges the state manages its lands much more efficiently than does the Forest Service. But they omit at least one critical fact: the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Forest Service to control wildfire in Idaho. Under the current system, fire-fighting costs are spread out over 310 million Americans, instead of 1.6 million Idahoans.

Most Idaho leaders understand that expense and taxpayer burden is nothing to dismiss lightly.

Likewise, it won’t help to pretend the Constitution doesn’t exist. Adams County Commissioner Mike Paradis and Valley County Commissioner Gordon Cruickshank recently opined that Congress should pass a law that stops environmental groups (or anyone else) from filing a lawsuit over Forest Service land management.

Trouble is, in America, we don’t pick and choose who gets access to the courthouse. Laws that try to do that aren’t likely to fly in Congress and even less likely in the courts.

We can relate to the frustrations voiced by Paradis and Cruickshank. They are our partners in collaborative efforts. Like them, ICL has invested long hours in community-based collaborative efforts, aimed at conserving and restoring national forests. As these county commissioners noted, these collaborative efforts have paid off with boosted timber sales, added mill jobs, restored streams and other benefits. In the Clearwater, the Payette, the Panhandle, the Boise and the Salmon-Challis National Forests, to name a few.

Yes, there is much we can do to make Idaho’s national forests safer and more resilient. Some of them will not be universally popular, and will be challenged in court. But Paradis and Cruickshank, like Labrador, have put their money on the wrong horse. The kind of changes they’re pitching undermine collaboration at the very time we need to deepen commitment to it.

Frankly, we do not need sweeping changes to America’s environmental laws to get work done in our forests. We do need dedication, funding, and focused leadership.

We know what’s needed: focused forest thinning near towns and homes, protection and restoration of critical watersheds, and ensuring communities have a plan to stay safe from inevitable wildfires.

More than that, we need clear-eyed pragmatism, rather than political smoke that leaves our eyes stinging.

Rick Johnson is the executive director of the Idaho Conservation League.