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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.
Why shouldn't we privatize the nation's public lands?
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."
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?
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.
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.'
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?
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?
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."
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?
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.