Underwriting provided by:
The Laura Moore Cunningham
Foundation

C.L. Butch Otter

C.L. Butch Otter is in his second term as Idaho's Governor. Before that, he served in the U.S. Congress and as Idaho's Lt. Governor. This interview was conducted at his home this summer by Bruce Reichert.

C.L. Butch Otter

What is it like to be the Governor of a state that is more than 60% owned by the federal government? What problems does that cause?
One might look at it two ways. It does have some advantages. With that much public land, which is not going to be subject to development, you enjoy a pretty wide range of wildlife; and subsequently, between our Fish and Game and other natural resource agencies, we're allowed to utilize those lands for growing a sizable portion of our economy, because hunting and fishing and that sort of thing is very popular in Idaho.

But, from the other side, we've had two governors in my lifetime that became Secretary of the Interior; and, in effect, they governed more of the land mass of Idaho as Secretary of the Interior than they did as governor. Because when you add up the 14 million acres of BLM, 21 million acres of forest, it comes to 35 million acres; but then you put in the state lands, which is Section 16 and 36 of every township, plus the other lands that don't pay taxes, it's like having a farmer go out here and water, fumigate, seed and then do all of the tillage and everything else that is necessary for a hundred acres of farmland, and then come harvest time say, no, you only get to harvest 17 acres of it.

"The biggest problem with the federal land is nobody is paying attention, and from time to time we find ourselves at the mercy of all the federal land that is around us when they won't take care of their noxious and invasive weeds."
- Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter

And so that's what it means. Really, it's more detrimental to the local units of government than it is to the state, because they don't have the taxability of that to support their infrastructure and to support the necessary services.

The biggest problem with the federal land is nobody is paying attention, and from time to time we find ourselves at the mercy of all the federal land that is around us when they won't take care of their noxious and invasive weeds. That then becomes the seed treasure for all the lands; then it becomes fine fuels for all the state lands and eventually the major fire hazards.

And that's probably the biggest cost. In 2007 my fire bill was 23 million dollars. You know what I could have done with 23 million dollars in a classroom or in other necessary government services? So it's unfortunate, and when the fine fuels aren't removed or controlled and then the ladder fuels that ladder up into the big trees, and when you have bug infestation and insect and disease and they don't know where the boundaries are. It's going to migrate into the state lands. And no matter how healthy we keep ours, we're always at the mercy of all that federal ground.

I would imagine, looking at the state of the national economy, that the shepherding of these national lands here in Idaho isn't going to get any better soon.
You know, there's good news and bad news there, and let me tell you why. Because they can't do it, they may well look to the states as a partner and say, listen, we will let you have some of the proceeds off those natural resources, because we can't afford to go in there and establish a good forest health base like you've done in your state lands, like your private companies have done in their holdings.

C.L. Butch Otter

And so it may well be that they say, we're going to have to partner with you on this, and we'll give you a certain control of this area of land, and we'll let you manage it, and we'll let you manage it to the same standards that you're doing such a great job on your state lands. If they would do that, we can alleviate problem #1, and that is their problems on their land migrating to our lands. But #2, it gives us a much larger area from which to market certain natural resources and also protection buffers for us. Because if we can help them with their federal land forest health, it will protect our state land forest health.

I could see that rural counties dependent on timber sales would like this idea.
We're seeing, whether it's a result of the tsunami or what, but we're seeing a pretty good increase in the international lumber market, and Canada hasn't been able to fill in that, which is usually our major competitor. So we're starting to see pine and fir and some of the 7 preferable species that we've got in Idaho — even cedar — they're all starting to move up, and most of that is as a result of the international market.

So our lumber mills were down to roughly 34 lumber mills in the state of Idaho. At one time we had a lumber mill almost in every town, but because of the constriction of the raw material market, the federal forest, a lot of those mills went out of business.

But in the meantime, the forest industry has been extremely responsible, because they've gone back and invested in their operations, and today we make as much – almost as much lumber – with half the mills as we used to make with twice as many mills, because they've added the technology of computers.

They've done such a great job, a great leap forward of faith by most of these large and small lumber companies to say, we're going to update while we've got the opportunity, and they did it.

How would you assess the job that the Forest Service and the BLM are doing here in Idaho and what might you suggest to them?
It's interesting. About the only time you can get anybody's attention on national, on federal lands, is when you want to graze it, or when you want to harvest it, and then it's, "No, we don't want you to graze it or harvest it." If those same people would step forward and say, "We'll control the noxious weeds, we'll maintain the forest health for you so you don't have these massive wildfires that you have and that you're susceptible to . . . " — and I want to remind everybody that it was right at 100 years ago we had the big burn.

If those same people would pay as much attention to the bark beetle or to the tussock moth or to the mistletoe infestations that we've got, to some of the other noxious and invasives that we're continuing to fight which become fine fuels for a lightning strike.

C.L. Butch Otter and Bruce Reichert talk while horseback riding.

I just wish those same people who want to come in and say "no, don't do anything, don't build any roads, don't harvest any trees" would then say, "But we'll come back and we'll put a backpack on, and we'll go around with some sort of chemical that is acceptable to the Forest Service in order to spray those weeds. We'll do that for you." But they don't do that.

Rural counties that have so much federal land are in a real bind. Is there a solution for these counties that are so dependent upon receipts from timber sales?
Obviously there is, between Craig-Wyden and also the PILT monies if they would ever fully fund those. I figured out the short time I was in Congress, six years, between No Child Left Behind, PILT and Craig-Wyden and the monies that we didn't get that we should have gotten, we were cheated out of about 148 million dollars. So that's in excess of 20 million dollars a year that these local counties would be able to maintain their locality and these rural counties would be able to maintain their ruralness.

It almost seems like in Washington D.C. — first off, there's not an understanding of a rural community, and it almost seems like it could be a plan to make it so miserable to live in a rural area that we're going to force them into the big cities, where perhaps we have more control over them. Now, I'm not a conspiratorial person, but it almost seems like if they're not doing it on purpose, they're having tremendous impact in that way by accident.

"It may well be that they say, we're going to have to partner with you on this, and we'll give you a certain control of this area of land, and we'll let you manage it, and we'll let you manage it to the same standards that you're doing such a great job on your state lands."
- Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter

What one or two things would you like to see changed or fixed in relation to federally owned public lands in Idaho — and what would it take to realize those changes?
I think we're starting to see some of those changes and it's because of economic reasons and also because of priority reasons. There have been several suggestions of late as there was at the Western Governors Conference that perhaps the state lands departments could look at certain areas where they'd say, we'll take over the management of this portion of this national forest. And so long as we're allowed to recover our costs of our attention to that from the proceeds of the management of it — and selective management of it — why I think we're starting to see some give there, not philosophical but economically, that we can't afford to pay attention to it, so I might as well let you go ahead and foster this because I just can't afford to take of it. And you seem to be doing a good job with yours. You have the personnel and the boots on the ground, you have the equipment. Obviously you have the desire to do it in some cases, so why don't we let you do it.

Earlier this summer the folks in Canyon County showed their displeasure with proposals by officials at Deer Flat National wildlife refuge that could limit access to Lake Lowell. This is your old stomping ground.
It's my old swimming hole. That's where I learned to water-ski, on Lake Lowell. In fact, a good Sunday afternoon after church being able to go out there and catch a few fish and picnic on the beach and do all the things that we did. You know, anytime they're going to put things ahead of family in this nation, I think you're making an encroachment on the very basic value that we have in this country.

John Adams said that our Constitution was not written for a nation weak in the home. And what he meant was you had to have strength in the family. You go back as far as Moses where they chose from ten families a leader and then from those ten leaders another leader and so the basis of all of our stability and the basis of our government should be in the home.

We call it Lake Lowell. You can call it whatever you want, but it was Lake Lowell when the New York Canal pumped the first acre foot of water into that thing and it will be Lake Lowell, I hope forever, and I hope Canyon County's got more to say about that lake than anybody else, because that's where the decisions ought to be made.

They care as much about the health of that lake and the health of the environment around that lake as any federal agent I've ever seen. No disparagement to those federal agents – well, maybe a little.

But, I'm just telling you that those folks in Canyon County, the reason it looks so nice is because they treat it nice, and they want to take care of it. They want that forever. They should have it forever. They should be the final say.