Underwriting provided by:
The Laura Moore Cunningham

John Freemuth

John Freemuth is a senior fellow at the Cecil Andrus Center for Public Policy, and a professor in the Department of Political Science at Boise State University. This interview was conducted during the summer of 2011 by Bruce Reichert.

John Freemuth

Some people think the public lands at one point belonged to the state of Idaho.
Yeah. That's a myth. When Idaho became a state it became a state out of land that was already national land; and so it received certain lands upon statehood, but Idaho didn't exist prior to the territories. It was always public land and then if Idahoans would like it to be managed by the state of Idaho it would be transferred from the federal government to the state, but saying it's being given back is just simply incorrect.

This notion of who should manage the public lands seems like a cyclical argument that comes up periodically. I would imagine there are a lot of folks who think, hey, let us take a crack at these lands; we couldn't do any worse.
The state of Idaho I think does a wonderful job, by and large, with its mission, which is a very different mission – maximize revenue for the schools of Idaho. It's clear and we see what those battles are about. Shouldn't we charge more for leases at cabin sites in McCall? Shouldn't we get fair market value for timber and grazing? But that's pretty focused and they'll tell you, yes, you can recreate on that, but only if we're not out there doing something that has to do with our lead mission.

"We have reduced their budget. We haven't reduced our expectations, have we? So isn't that a disconnect? We haven't said well, we'll cut your budget, but we're not going to ask you to do as much either."
- John Freemuth

If you gave the state of Idaho the complicated multiple use mission with all the environmental statutes that the Forest Service has to deal with, they wouldn't do any better job. It's a question what the mission is, not who is doing it.

Do you think the Forest Service has lost its mission?
The Forest Service — maybe they made some mistakes. What large institution doesn't, right? But we have lost our consensus of what the forests are for. It's not clear, if you survey the American public — and it's going to vary by region and who you are talking about — what the purpose of a national forest is. If we're not clear, then they can't be clear. If we're confused, they will be confused in terms of what their priorities ought to be and so forth. Yeah, their mission used to be to produce goods and services for society in a certain context. We agreed on that. Now we don't agree.

Some people really view national forests in their heads as national parks. Nobody said the National Park Service has lost its mission, because its mission has never changed. That's the difference.

John Freemuth in his classroom at Boise State University

I think we've loaded on a lot of our values. It's Democracy. Now some of their problems, I think a lot of people would agree with these planning statutes, they have just created a morass for them. They've tried again to revise their planning regulations and received nothing but grief from everyone. That era of complex planning has really bogged them down I think. Maybe we're past that, but I'm not sure how anybody has figured out how to back out of that again.

How is the morale of the Forest Service?
My sense is when folks can get out on the ground and do why they became Forest Service employees, they're happy. I think when they're in the office dealing with rules, regulations, bureaucratic meddling from above, or fear to do things, I think that gets frustrating. I know people now who are talking about retirement. They are very good people; they're just bogged down by the whole thing — and we've defunded them. They have less and less people to do everything that they've been asked to do, and that's tough, too.

We have reduced their budgets.
That gets interesting. We have reduced their budget. We haven't reduced our expectations, have we? So isn't that a disconnect? We haven't said well, we'll cut your budget, but we're not going to ask you to do as much either.

So they do more and more with less and less, which then leads into this question of, yes, we want our bureaucracies to be efficient, but we want them to do so much else. And here's something I've come across lately, when they had to consolidate forests and ranger districts, which makes sense in certain circumstances, what they've done is reduce their presence on the ground and local communities. No wonder local communities don't feel in sync with the Forest Service any more. They're not there like they used to be.

Rangers lived in these communities. They were part of the community. They were part of the local economy. If that starts getting reduced, they've lost a key part of their stool, as it were, that keeps them stable.

They seem to be much more involved in collaborative efforts these days.
What's interesting about that is we all know this collaboration stuff has been going on, and there have been some successes. But what is sort of interesting is how people got into it, and how they've sort of learned to develop all these relationships with people.

"If these were all privatized, then we would have no conversations about this. It would be more, how the hell can I make enough money to get my share of that?"
- John Freemuth

We saw that when we looked at the Owyhee collaborative, which is public lands, and how Craig Gehrke and Fred Grant said, because of the relationships we've developed here, we trust each other on something else. The people who still fight the wars of the '60's, '70's and early '80's, they're not collaborating. They are getting their marching orders from whoever they are, whether it be fundraising or political victories. That's where they're getting their information that the environmentalists are evil or the timber industry is evil, and they're not doing the collaboration. The environmental side and the various people from the timber industry that collaborate, they're in a different place.

I think they got weary of the battles and like most people it probably feels better emotionally and intellectually to be trying to solve a problem rather than always having to hate somebody. I think it's psychological too — that you just feel like you're accomplishing something by working together. Who doesn't like developing new relationships in an area you care a lot about? So yeah, I think there's a lot of truth there.

Here in Idaho, we live with public lands. How does the rest of the country view public lands?
The average American, I still don't get the sense that they have the level of sophistication and understanding that an Idahoan has about federal lands. I was a park ranger. People would ask me Forest Service questions. The Forest Service gets mistaken for the Park Service. I've seen national reporters get the agencies confused occasionally. And the BLM, who are they? They are only in the west — and so no, I don't think the average public thinks too much or knows too much about it. They should. It's the greatest experiment in socialism we've ever had!

Do you think the public lands have been a success story?
Yes. Now, have there been groups and individuals hurt by individual federal land decisions? Unquestionably. When I was a ranger, foreign visitors would often remark about how smart and lucky we were to do this, create this large estate. It's still essentially protected land that we can all use for purposes accessible to us all, as Wallace Stegner would say. A lot of environmentalism first started in the use of these lands, and I think it has been a success, given what the alternative would have been.

So you're not a fan of selling off the public lands?
Who would own them under that? They allow us to practice Democracy. If these were all privatized, then we would have no conversations about this. It would be more, how the hell can I make enough money to get my share of that? I'm glad we didn't do that, alright? Unfortunately, we sometimes lose the ability to talk about how we can have both wise resource use and preservation. I don't know why we can't have both — if we can tone down the holy rhetoric.

I did a blog for the Andrus Center, and I bet people the Park Service would outlive the Forest Service. A hundred years from now, are they still going to be here? I think the agencies with the cleanest missions will be here. I think the Park Service will clearly still be around because they also have the history mission, the sacred sites of our history. They will survive.

I think BLM and the Forest Service will too, if we can work out a sense of commonality about why we still want those lands in the public sphere. Not saying every acre. Maybe it makes sense to divest a few acres here and there; but again, what's the alternative? Private space or just using land to raise revenue, right? You know what gets lost if you just do that or if they're just all preserved? What happens to these little towns? You can't just drop that tourism bomb on them.

National Geographic has a great map. One is land forms of the lower 48 and Alaska. Then you flip it over, and it's the ownership patterns. It just stuns students who aren't as familiar with public lands. You see the ownership pattern from about the hundred and fifth meridian west. You just see how different the west is. It's an artifact of our history, but it's just a stunning reminder of how all this is so different out here.

It's conservatism in a good way. We value this; we want to keep this for later generations. We would be poorer without these lands, as Stegner and others have said. Much poorer.