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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.
How do you see our view of public lands changing?
"I don't think the Forest Service has lost its mission. I think that the Forest Service has lost its constituency."
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?
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.
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, 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?
"We were spending about 2.4% of the federal budget on natural resource agencies. . . . Today, we spend around .8% of our budget."
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?
How does the rest of the nation view our public lands?
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.