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Tom Kovalicky

Tom Kovalicky is a retired forest supervisor for the Nez Perce National Forest. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2011 by Bruce Reichert.

Tom Kovalicky

Why shouldn't we privatize the nation's public lands?
I've been thinking about that particular question a lot, and I will tell you why. When I was a kid, Pluto was a planet. And just like that, somebody decided that Pluto is no longer a planet. And I got to thinking about that, by God, if you apply that to where we live in the Rocky Mountain west, we're shrinking. The land mass is shrinking. Nobody is making clean water any more. Nobody is making clean air any more. Nobody is making land any more, and what we have left is what we have left, and now everybody wants a chunk of it.

In the past, it was pretty passive. It's there. We know it's there. Why worry about it, it will be there tomorrow. Well, just take a look at what's happening around us in the news. We're talking about climate change, we're talking about pollution in the air. We're talking about pollution in the water.

What we once had was plenty for everybody, and now the population is exceeding the demand. And supply.

So, what are we going to do about it? Well, the best thing we could do about it is to keep the pressure on our public lands remaining solvent. If you take a look at what these lands are worth in terms of value to our society, almost 70% of all the clean water that originates in the west comes from public lands or national forest lands, in particular.

Wilderness holds the key value for, for not only keeping track of the biology of life and the unknown secrets of life, but also, keeping things a little on the clean side for all of us to enjoy.

"If you take a look at what these lands are worth in terms of value to our society, almost 70% of all the clean water that originates in the west comes from public lands or national forest lands, in particular."
- Tom Kovalicky

So, should public lands be around for a long time? Yes. However, politics is going to be the next challenge to the public land. And we have to reckon with that. Politicians should not look at that as an opportunity to move that land out of the public basin into the hands of private enterprise. Not that some of that wouldn't work. But a lot of it would not work. So, watch the politics. The politics are going to play a big role in the future of what happens to the public land base that we have today. We still enjoy the good life. Quality of life is high in the west. There will be people who will try to manipulate that.

So you think the public lands would go to the highest bidder?
Well, you know, if public lands did go to the highest bidder, we would have set the scenario up for spoils. The people who ended up with that land and started to develop it might or might not be under the scrutiny of law, under the challenge of doing what's right for the greatest good. I have got the property, and I am going to develop it now so I can maximize my income, and I am not going to worry about quality of life or clean water or some of the wildlife values.

A good case in point would be to take a look at what's happening right now with that land exchange, at the top of Lolo pass. You have got a large, large timber corporation wanting to take that land, which has been cut over and heavily eroded, and trade the Forest Service for lands that are pristine or almost pristine, in terms of potential for either subdivisions or perhaps, even more logging. And then, more subdivisions, more roads. That becomes a snowball in hell for a lot of communities. Sure, they may reap half an hour's worth of new income, but they are going to have 50 years of hell after that.

That happened all over Idaho, so we'll see, we'll see how that land exchange plays out. That will be one of the weather vanes in Idaho because it's so big, so large an exchange of land.

What do you think of the collaboration currently going on across the state, with the Forest Service, the timber companies, the environmental community? Seems like a good thing.
You know, I have a theory on collaboration, and it's not that collaboration is a negative thing. In the political world that we live in, collaboration may be a way around or through goofy politics. However, after 30 years in the federal government, in the land management business, I will say this: if the Forest Service, in particular, was doing its job, you wouldn't need these collaborative efforts.

Collaboration, to me, is almost a bandaid on something more serious, and we need to take a look at why the Forest Service can't perform as professionals in today's society without collaboration.

On the Nez Perce National Forest from 1982 to 1991, we used our public to help shape the products and services that would come off of that national forest, and we initiated that without collaboration. And the two products, in particular, that came to the surface was water quality and fish habitat.

Because the Nez Perce forest had 15% of all the chinook habitat in the upper Columbia River basin, making that a commodity worth more than — and let me just pick on timber for a moment, or timber supply — making that a more valuable crop than harvesting trees, because sustainability for trees is measured in hundreds of years, and sustainability for a cash crop of chinook, both recreational, commercial and Nez Perce tribe cultural stuff, is annually. So we have to measure that, and the Nez Perce National Forest did, and we did it with partnerships. We didn't use the word 'collaboration.' We used the word, 'primetime players.'

Tom Kovalicky

Who are the prime time players in our society? Who will step up to the plate and be responsible for their recommendation, and that they will stand with them as time moves on? And that's how we look at that, the thing they call collaboration today. That's why I'm suspicious about it. Collaboration could easily be a tradeoff that a lot of people really don't want.

Are the issues that you dealt with as a supervisor the same issues that the Forest Service is dealing with today?
In the Forest Service today and the Bureau of Land Management, these issues still revolve around what is the best use of these public lands? And it still boils down to, we have got to cut more trees. And we have to graze more livestock. And as the land base is shrinking, not expanding, we're trying to do more things on one acre than we have ever attempted before. And as a result of that, we're having some collapse. We're having infighting and outfighting. We have politics. The politicians now are trying to run the Forest Service by passing laws in Congress, telling the Forest Service what to do, rather than saying, what tools and how much money do you need to do your job? We'll get it for you.

And they are not doing that. What they are doing is, they are saying, here are the things you are going to do for us now. And that throws a big wrench into yesterday's issues that will become tomorrow's problems. So, yeah, the issues are still here today that were there 35 years ago, only they are more magnified and they are more complex, and they are more political.

It seems that the demographics are changing on our public lands. Will the new generation appreciate public lands, and how will things change?
What I call it is the changing color of America. And, and as these cultures come into our life now, we're no longer the white Europeans in control. We now have people of many cultures and colors who are vying for political positions, and that's where the change will occur. And as that happens, they are going to bring with them a cultural value that doesn't relate to the original value that, let's say, created the wilderness act of 1964.

That is not an American Indian concept. That's a white European concept based on the challenges that pioneers were faced with when they left the east coast moving westward. If you ask a Native American, how do you say the word 'wilderness' in their language, they would say 'home.' They don't make a distinction between wilderness and non-wilderness. It's home. We lived off of this land.

"Collaboration, to me, is almost a bandaid on something more serious, and we need to take a look at why the Forest Service can't perform as professionals in today's society without collaboration."
- Tom Kovalicky

The next culture comes along, and says, that's a lot of land that you have tied up. In my country, in my experience, we could have used that to make money with and have a decent living, and over here, it's set aside.

Now, the challenge of value comes into play. That has to be worked out. People have to be convinced that what happened 100, 200 years ago in America may be the best in the long run, that it wasn't designed for the short run. So that's the challenge.

Finally, why should folks care what happens to the public lands?
People should still care because of the quality of life. As long as people relate to clean air, clean water, clean soil, and elbow room, they have to start caring, and it's not only the agencies, but it's up to the politicians to put that into their formulas when they start doing the social and economic law passing. They have to bring that into focus for people.

A lot of people could say, "We don't care. I'm only going to be here for 60, 75 years, and then somebody else will have to worry about it." We can't go there. We have to worry about it for the people who aren't going to be here.

If you follow some of the works of the Iroquois nation, you will find out that in their long houses, when they made a decision, they made it for seven generations, and we don't do that. If we do it, we don't do it well. So, let's get into the 'seventh generation' way of looking at things, and maybe we can make this worthwhile worrying about.