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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.
You used to be quite a lightning rod on environmental issues. So what's changed?
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."
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?
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?
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.
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.
The clock is ticking, so what do you do?
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?
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.
"Worst case scenario would be the government is broke and they start selling off the public lands to try and do something else."
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?
But you're optimistic, 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.