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John McCarthy

John McCarthy has been active in conservation matters for several decades. He currently works for the Wilderness Society. Before that, he worked for the Idaho Conservation League. These days he's one of the driving forces in collaborative efforts across the state. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2011 by Bruce Reichert.

John McCarthy

You used to be quite a lightning rod on environmental issues. So what's changed?
Yeah. It wasn't all that long ago that there were massive timber and road building projects planned in really nice areas — roadless areas and really beautiful forests that a lot of people wanted to stop — and I got out front in some of it and somewhat earned a reputation as being a fighter.

I never really thought of myself as a fighter because I like people and I'm a practical guy. And that practical side is really what is prevailing now. It's that sense that people in Idaho want to get things done; and I've always had that sense of getting things done . Some things where it really didn't make a lot of sense — building roads, cutting old growth, cutting down massive clear cuts — it didn't make a lot of sense, and as it turns out, I don't think it made a lot of sense to anybody.

"We've learned that it's not just good enough to say, okay your thing is your thing, good luck. But if we're going to work together . . . sustainable timber logging interests, sustainable forest management interests also have to be our interests."
- John McCarthy

The change now, though, has to do with a greater appreciation of how complex conditions are and how much work needs to be done without really a road map on how to do it; and I think that's what is really bringing people together. It's that sense that people are practical in Idaho. They want to get things done. There's a lot of work to be done, and we are going to have to do it together, because doing it separate is too simplistic and doesn't really meet people's needs.

How many people do you think understand the sea change that appears to have happened?
Well, if you look back ten years, it seems like it's a radical change alright, but if you look over the course of ten years, it's been a number of things. Roadless areas have been protected, clear-cutting is pretty much ended, the timber market has changed, the competition before timber became international — all these things happened and sort of came to a head about ten years ago and now people are trying to adjust and not just be reactive but try and figure out what is it that needs to be done.

A lot of people probably think it's just really strange that a guy like Bill Higgins and John McCarthy actually spend time together. They probably think that's just weird, but one, we like each other. Two, we learn from each other and three, we really want to get some stuff done.

Bill is not opposed to doing work that I want to see done: treating fuels, improving wildlife habitat, fixing roads, all the way down to fixing trails. There's lots of work that needs to be done, and the sense that we can work together and come up with a better plan, get more people involved, work with the Forest Service in cooperation — no longer in conflict — all that stuff is unproven, but people probably don't realize we're in the second generation of these planning efforts.

So what sorts of things do you and Bill Higgins, a timber guy, agree upon?
One of the things in this process that lit my eyes up was when Bill Higgins said we're not just about logging. We want to work — do all kinds of work in the forest. So if there's trails that need to be fixed, if there's roads that need to be put to bed, if there's watersheds that need to be repaired — and I've seen some work they've done to go back and fix dredged out mining areas — they want to do it.

An aerial view of a burning wildfire.

They want to find the people that can do it, they want to work with folks in the local community to do all kinds of work in the forest. That really got me to thinking that we find the folks who want to get stuff done, they have the connections with all kinds of working people who want to do work in the woods that needs to be done, that's going to be a benefit to everybody, we'll start getting somewhere and we'll start getting somewhere pretty quick.

Bill Higgins, a timber guy, says that the Clearwater Basin Collaboration is working, that he feels you and others have his back.
Well it's true. We've learned that it's not just good enough to say, okay your thing is your thing, good luck. But if we're going to work together, Bill Higgins' interests — sustainable timber logging interests, sustainable forest management interests — also have to be our interests. So we have to go all the way through and help him out to realize whatever needs to happen in planning, if there needs to be additional funding, we've got to follow all the way through. I'm really pleased to hear that he says we've got his back because we do. We've got to follow through. We've got to work together on this. It's not a little bit here and a little bit there. We are in this thing together and it's very complicated and time is ticking.

Certainly one of the things you're all up against is the fear of large-scale fires, like the one that occurred in 1910, that killed 86 people, destroyed the town of Wallace, and burned three million acres. That could conceivably happen again.

We're concerned about species recovery, and if conditions don't improve, maybe conditions are going to be too stressful for bull trout and sage grouse. There are fuels around communities, uncharacteristic fuel loads out in the forest. There's climate change which we really haven't even started to address or even look at. What do we do to improve water sheds and resiliency?

I think there's also the sense of an aging population that has skills and we need to pass those skills on to people, and I see a sense of urgency in young people getting skilled to be able to go out and work in the forest and be effective, and while they're young and strong be out there and do good work, and I think that there's a bunch of folks, older folks who need to pass on those skills.

There's also this sense that conflict going on too long just perpetuates itself. I don't feel the conflict when I go out to Grangeville or Orofino or Garden Valley anymore, but I think we need to get a greater resolution to get stable budgets both for the public servants, the public agencies, also some stable budgets for the counties.

The idea that there's not people working in real communities when there is probably good work to be done means schools are stressed, means that people are moving out, means the skills are being lost. So I think the clock is also ticking on the social component.

John McCarthy

The clock is ticking, so what do you do?
I can't help but hope that, as we build a common sense of support, we'll build a common sense of direction, we'll smooth how things are done, we'll speed how things are done and we'll just build greater support. We're going there with county commissioners, we're going there with sawmill operators, we're going there with hunters and anglers. We're a unified force. That's going to make it easier to fund these things.

Now, we're going to be crunched for money for who knows how long, but how we effectively and efficiently spend our money is something we can work on and we are working on.

Where do federal agencies, like the Forest Service, fit in?
In my world, in the environmental world, there are a number of folks who have argued that the Forest Service can't be fixed, the Bureau of Land Management can't be fixed, and they should just be put out of business. I've never been one of those folks. I think that that position is more unrealistic than ever today. I think there are highly skilled, well educated, committed people in those agencies that really want to be out there doing good work. The more we build support for that good work, the more we're going to have an efficient and an effective set of public servants.

Give us a nuts and bolts description of how the Clearwater Basin Collaborative project got started and how it works, because this does seem to be a pretty solid group of folks.
There have to be local folks — some configuration of different interests meet and get a sense that they could sit down and work toward agreements. Nobody knows whether you're going to get there or not. So a guy named Dale Harris from Montana with just a high, high interest in the Great Burn area, and Alex Irby from Orofino, with both motorized interests and a timber guy and also just a sporting guy who was a Fish and Game commissioner — these two guys said the time was right.

"Worst case scenario would be the government is broke and they start selling off the public lands to try and do something else."
- John McCarthy

We said no, slow down. But they went ahead and did it anyway, and started putting together more people and quick enough, once they started to get a configuration, the key was Senator Crapo. Senator Crapo was wrapping up the Owyhee Initiative, had built a lot of trust throughout all different kinds of communities, had built up recognition in Congress as somebody who pulled off a very contentious, very complicated, and ultimately a great piece of legislation.

So a set of folks went to the Forest Service. They said yes, and then just invited in the congressional staff. Senator Crapo actually did send out an invitation letter. The thing about the Clearwater group is they're trying to deal with at least four big issues: timber supply, recreation, generalized forest economics, and then wilderness. Some pretty big stuff all at once.

So what's the worst case scenario for our public lands, say, ten years out?
Worst case scenario would be the government is broke and they start selling off the public lands to try and do something else. I don't see that western interests would ever sell off the public lands, although we had an Idaho congressman who suggested it a couple years back, and it will probably come back up again, but I just don't see for economic reasons they would start slashing it up. That would be a disaster. I always like Jack Ward Thomas' line, that I've got millions and millions of acres that I own just like you do. It's like all of us own it and all of us get to use it. The whole sense of public land is to me what makes American a great place to be. It's so different than anyplace else.

But you're optimistic, overall?
There's this growing recognition that we have complex problems and shared concerns, and it's bringing people together in a very interesting way. Folks who maybe will fight over some things and some places — like ATV guys and wilderness guys — are looking at how do we work on projects that improve conditions overall.

How do we bring together people to come up with good ideas and smooth the way to get stuff done faster and meet more people's interests? It's really an interesting time. It's hard to get people together, it's hard to get people fully supported to juggle all the complexities of science, economics, social values — but people want to do it. People want to make a run at it. It's cool.