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Rocky Barker

Rocky Barker is an author and the environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2011 by Bruce Reichert.

Rocky Barker

How do you see our view of public lands changing?
When I began studying environmentalism in the early 1970s, there was this gloom and doom view that everything was getting worse, and the job was to protect the lands from ourselves. I think that beginning in a new time, perhaps 25 years from now, we will start to recognize that nature's having major changes on itself. Some of these changes we have certainly caused, like climate change, but I think that they are going to see that we will integrate nature into our lives in a way that was here before and lost.

"I don't think the Forest Service has lost its mission. I think that the Forest Service has lost its constituency."
- Rocky Barker

I really think that were going to go back to the kind of way that nature was a part of our lives. Basically, in small town Idaho, nature was integrated. Public lands were integrated into their lives. I think, in towns like Boise, we're starting to see nature become more integrated into lives, into who we are as human beings. Instead of it being humans versus nature, it's going to be humans and nature. I think that's a positive, and it's a different way of looking at things. Idaho, I think, is going to be in a wonderful place for that. I think that we will be one of the paradises on earth.

What about the Forest Service? Has this federal agency lost its mission?
I don't think the Forest Service has lost its mission. I think that the Forest Service has lost its constituency. Its mission was primarily to produce timber off of its lands, a post World War II mission, to fill in a hole after we had largely cut most of the private land timber.

Today, that's their biggest struggle. The environmental community is trying to reach out a little better, but the timber industry doesn't get that much timber any more off of the forest lands. I think that that's their challenge, and that's our challenge as a country, to look at this and say, "How important is this?" This gets to another issue that really I'm only beginning to report, and that's how much we have cut back on our spending on all natural resources management since the Carter years.

Rocky Barker at work at his Idaho Statesman office

At the time Andrus was our Interior Secretary, we were spending about 2.4% of the federal budget on natural resource agencies from Bureau of Reclamation, to BLM, to the Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife Service, etc. Today, we spend around .8% of our budget. And it's been going steadily down, except for that little brief bump during the stimulus.

That hurts states like Idaho where public lands are so much a part of our state, and that's why towns like Orofino don't have as many people working there anymore. That's why Grangeville is facing new cuts as the Forest Service cuts back. You know, it really has an impact on our lives, even as much or more than the fights that we've been having over the land.

What about the Bureau of Land Management? These were originally lands hardly anyone wanted. Where are they headed?
The BLM really demonstrates the larger sense of where we are going with our public lands. We are no longer seeing our public lands primarily as a way of helping the private economy. It doesn't mean that they still don't play that role; but now it is almost a secondary role of public lands.

The BLM, under Jim Caswell, changed the names of their land to 'public lands.' That mission is to provide public services for the public good. And included in those services are livestock, mining, and energy development. Recreation continues to be a growing part of that. The lands that once were just the lands no one else wanted are now recognized for their values. Those values include a lot of ecological values, particularly in a time of climate change. We now are starting to see that the water and the public lands have services that they provide for us, ecological services that are important ecologically.

As you look to the future, say 20 years from now, what do you see happening to the public lands that will impact Idahoans?
One of the things I think we're going to see change dramatically, in north Idaho, is that run-off is going to be over by April 1. We're going to see a lot of flooding in the winter, in the early spring, and then we're going to see a lot of dry later.

"We were spending about 2.4% of the federal budget on natural resource agencies. . . . Today, we spend around .8% of our budget."
- Rocky Barker

That means we're going to see a lot of fire. Now, we have seen a lot of fire in the last 20 years. But I think we're going to see more. But we also have an opportunity, because we are building a consensus on how to manage these lands, to begin doing a lot more timber cutting from an ecological standpoint.

What is the worst case scenario for the public lands?
I think that the worst case scenario is that we will come to the belief that they are better off being in private hands. The public can't or shouldn't have the public lands. If that happens for Idaho, it takes away our brand, takes away who we are, and I think that would be a terrible thing for the state. There might be money in it for us for a while. But, I think that people would find that the people who own those lands wouldn't be the people that they think would own those lands. The things that people on both sides of the issue share would be lost.

Rocky Barker

How does the rest of the nation view our public lands?
I was in Yellowstone this summer. I stood at Old Faithful, you know, that annual pilgrimage, and for some people, they only make it once in their lifetime. This was a particularly large crowd. Most of those people, if you told them you are in a national park, or national forest, they really don't know. They know they are on their land, and that Old Faithful is theirs. That's all they know. They want to go and see it. They care about it. They are pleased to know it's there. I think that we sometimes take it for granted.

I do think that there is a group of Americans right now who have kind of lost touch with how we have come to the decisions we have. These folks, many of them who actually depend and live on the public lands here in Idaho, think somehow that it would be better if we would sell all these lands off. Maybe they would have a better job, or maybe they would have a better life.

There is this whole idea that somehow, if we turned this land all back to the states, that we would be better off. Well, I will tell you that will cost a lot of money. I don't think that it is as cheap as most people think to fight fires, for instance. And this land has a lot of richness and a lot of values, but they are not all economic values.