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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.
Some people think the public lands at one point belonged to the state of Idaho.
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.
"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."
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?
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.
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?
We have reduced their budgets.
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.
"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?"
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?
Do you think the public lands have been a success story?
So you're not a fan of selling off the public lands?
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.