Conservation: From the Timber Wars to collaboration
The deep roots of 20th century timber politicsBy Zach Hagadone Special to the Reader
This story winds through the earliest days of economic development in North Idaho taking in the booms and busts of the first half of the 20th century. It illustrates the deep roots of what would come to be called the “Timber Wars,” which shook the nation in the 1980s and ’90s, and brings us into the 21st century with a changed spirit of how to leverage conservation for both ecological and economic benefit.
The central themes of conflict and collab oration — especially as they relate to timber lands and how to manage them — require a longer view. The conversations surrounding them, unearthed in the records of regional newspapers, sound eerily familiar even as far back as the turn of the 20th century.
To understand how the conflict of the Timber Wars has evolved into collaboration, then we must start at the beginning — with the development of the timber industry and how its interplay with notions of conserva tion changed during the first five decades of the 20th century. Using the experience of the Inland Northwest, and North Idaho in particular, as a case study offers a unique perspective on the far larger trends that continue to resonate today.
So it is there that this story starts, amid the forests, mountains, lakes and river val leys of Bonner County and its surrounds.
It didn’t take long for Euro-American settlement in the Inland Northwest to run headlong into the forests of the region. In the larger states and territories of the West in the late-19th century, timber harvesting had been a booming industry for decades. But as the 19th turned into the 20th century, what had been considered backcountry or pass-through land on the way to the Pacific Coast was starting to fill up with home steaders, hacking out farms and fields from the vast stands of old growth.
One large wave of settlement followed the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered 160 acres to citizens or those who planned to become citizens. Rooted in the ideal of an agrarian America, this land clearance would provide a massive economic boon while acting to expand and tie together the
United States after the Civil War. However, this was accomplished at the expense of Indigenous tribes across the country, which were displaced by land seizures, faulty treaties and violence that culminated in the strategic and systematic removal of native people from territories that federal policies insisted were best exploited by white settle ment and industry.
Yet, as settler colonists moved farther west, into the thick forests and rugged terrain of places like western Montana, northern Idaho and the then-Washington Territory, those 160 acres started to feel inadequate for establishing a profitable agricultural operation. And so, from the 1870s to the 1890s, Congress passed a raft of laws that allowed settlers more options for increasing their homestead allotment — if they installed irrigation, for instance, they
would be entitled to more acreage. One of those laws, the Timber Land Act of 1878, expanded the ability of settlers to buy large sections of forested territory. In 1892, it was extended from the states of California, Oregon, Nevada and Washington Territory to all public land states, including Idaho.
While the Homestead Act had been intended to support agrarian settlement and the removal of Indigenous peoples, supple mentary laws in the Northwest had morphed it into an invitation to commercialize timber cutting. Why bust your hump clearing a mountain valley full of rocks and trees un less you could make something off the labor itself? Indeed, why even bother with the trouble of digging and blasting stumps to plant crops when the stone and timber itself could be more profitable than the produce of your fields?
Adam Sowards, an environmental his torian who serves as director of the Pacific Northwest Studies Program at the University of Idaho, described this as part of a “cut-andrun mentality” that was common at the time.
“On the one hand a really strong, prevail ing ideology in that era was that land should be farmed and trees were sort of in the way of that, so the first step in improving the land was to cut down the trees,” he said.
However, following the flurry of legis lation surrounding the Homestead Act, it became clear that “almost all of these laws were horribly corrupt and ineffective in doing what they were set up to do.”
“Land agents would look the other way
when there was fraud,” Sowards said, “it was really easy for a timber company for example or a mining company to hire peo ple to acquire the land and then sign it right over to the company.”
The newspapers published in the commu nities of northern Idaho in the late-1800s and early-1900s are filled with evidence of the boom in timberland purchases empowered by federal legislation — sometimes whole pages of broadsheet covered in notices of claims made in the Coeur d’Alene land office that settlers would “offer proof to show that the land sought is more valuable for its tim ber or stone than for agricultural purposes.”
From the beginning of these policies, there came concerns from observers in more densely populated regions — and, critically, among those in the East — that unrestrained exploitation of timberlands would result in a “timber famine.”
“With that ideal of improvement and that ideal of laissez faire economies you have a recipe for cutting and running, not a lot of investment from timber owners in commu nities and a real concern as you got toward the end of the 19th century that we’re going to run out of trees — we’re going to run out of wood,” Sowards said.
The solution in 1891 was to actively conserve some of those forested sections, putting them aside in a system of reserves to be administered by the federal government.
“In fact the law that timber reserves were created out of in 1891 was mostly about reforming and revising some of these other laws,” according to Sowards.
The reserve policy, well-intentioned as it was, proved to be among the first flash points of conflict between resource exploitation and conservation in the West — and the news papers of early-20th century northern Idaho reflected clearly just how vigorous the oppo sition to that policy was, touching on a range of arguments and issues that would continue to simmer into the present day.
‘It is men we want, not trees’
In the first few years of the 20th century, forest reserves encompassing hundreds of thousands of acres of timberland were es tablished along the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, in the Priest River area, in the region of the Clearwater River and in the Cabinet Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border. All of them elicited thunderous re sponses from state and local political leaders.
A report in the Northern Idaho News of May 19, 1905 illustrated how tangled forest policies had become with politics. Giving much ink to anti-forest reserve partisans like former-Gov. William J. McConnell, who according to a republished quote from the Lewiston Tribune had referred to the “forest reserve movement” in Idaho as “just plain moonshine.”
“The creation of those Clearwater reserves will not and cannot serve the purpose that is
claimed by the department. As I understand it an object of the reserve is to conserve nature’s water storage. Nature, however, makes its own forest reserves,” he said.
What’s more, McConnell added, “It is true that agents are doing some good in preventing the theft of timber from the government, but the forest reserve menace has gone beyond such purposes.”
Idaho Democratic Sen. Weldon Heyburn — an attorney representing mining interests in Wallace — rose to the front ranks among the critics of then-President Theodore Roo sevelt’s forest reserve policy. As the lead front-page article of the Feb. 1, 1906 edition of the Pend Oreille Review put it, Heyburn was locked in combat with the conserva tion-minded Republican president so as to “preserve Northern Idaho from becoming a huge forest reserve.”
According to the paper, Heyburn spoke from the Senate floor, blasting the forest re serve system, which he claimed had already gobbled up 23,000 square miles of the state.
“It is men we want, not trees,” he said.
Back home in northern Idaho, citizens in Sandpoint and Clark Fork gathered at mass meetings to oppose the reserve sys tem, in one instance forming a committee to present an appeal to Roosevelt that he “stay the impending injury to our homes, our schools, our churches, our industries and the various complicated interests of our growing communities.”
Unrest over the “conservation theo ry,” as it was derisively referred to in the regional papers, drew no less than Roos evelt’s chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, to visit Coeur d’Alene in July 1907 to hear the complaints in person.
According to a report from the Pend Oreille Review, preserved in the digital archives of the Bonner County Historical Museum, Pinchot had been “besieged for hours by rich lumbermen, small claimhold ers and protesting citizens,” all clamoring over the forest reserve policy and making for “a strenuous afternoon and evening” for the federal official, who by then had been at the head of the U.S. Forest Service since its establishment in 1905 by Roosevelt.
Pinchot explained that the argument that forest reserves locked out settlement was “a mistaken idea.” He pointed out that at the recommendation of his department, Con gress had authorized settlement within the reserves, though under certain conditions.
“If a man wants to go upon a piece of land and make a home the department wants to help him,” Pinchot said. “If he wants to sell out, to get the timber and dispose of it to some lumber company, we want to hinder him and we will if possible. President Roo sevelt has no use for the man who skins the land and moves on.”
Pinchot went on to underscore the Forest Service’s goal of conserving timberlands for future use.
“Forests are disappearing so rapidly that
it is estimated that none will remain in 30 or 40 years unless action is taken by the government to protect them,” he told the audience in Coeur d’Alene. “We are not able to tell just how long our timber will last but we know that it is being cut three or four times as fast as it is being reproduced and that we are rushing with railroad speed toward a timber famine worse than any coal famine that we have ever experience or are in danger of soon.”
Idaho is full of leeches’
As the furor over the forest reserve poli cy continued through the first decade of the 20th century, widespread timber cutting had vaulted Inland Northwest communities into an economic and population boom.
Articles appeared routinely, trumpeting the wealth and possibilities of northern Ida ho. Sandpoint’s population had grown from 300 to 3,000 between 1900 and 1906. This growth was spurred in part by employment at the 20 or so mills that had sprung up in the county, as well as the mining operations and rail connections that gave the Sandpoint community “advantages as a commercial center second to none.”
At that time, the Humbird Lumber Com pany alone employed 550 workers across its mills, yards, stores, bank and general offices — illustrating how deep the company had penetrated in the life of the county. In nearly every newspaper of the period could be found large advertisements for the wares being sold at Humbird company stores — from ladies’ shoes to Spanish olives — the financing deals for land purchases at its bank, even marketing for its foray into pro viding electricity to the area.
Of the 17 top employers listed in one 1906 article in the Northern Idaho News, 10 were timber-related and at the top was
Sandpoint, according to the writer, was “where labor finds its reward.”
By 1908, the Sandpoint population had grown to 5,000, making it “the metropolis of the upper Panhandle.” It boasted a supply of “the choicest white pine to be found in the rich white pine section of Idaho … [and shipping] more cedar poles than any other city in the United States.”
At the same time, the area had devel oped to the point where tourism entered the marketing pitch, described as “a most accessible summering place.”
“The location of Sandpoint on Lake Pend d’Oreille makes it an excellent sum mer resort,” the article stated. “The beach is good and the wild picturesque scenery so quickly accessible to the launch makes it the headquarters for picnic and camping parties. Good hunting and fishing make glad the heart of the sportsman.”
Not everyone was so pleased with the marketing of northern Idaho — nor of the infusion of timber wealth that had created an outsized class of “professional men, real estate boosters, clerks, grafters and knockers, which altogether make up three thousand of the possible six thousand of our lake city and environments, and we want no more of that fraternity.”
That was according to Louis Arnold, who penned an op-ed titled “Ranchers the Need of the Country” in the Nov. 19, 1909 edition of the Pend Oreille Review.
Arnold looked at the tracts of cut-over lands, “where nothing but great expanses of
stumps and brush and second-growth timber are to be seen,” and bemoaned the fact that relatively few rural homesteaders seemed willing to put in the work to remove the stump fields and replace them with productive farms.
Instead, he wrote, “In Bonner County there are 50 attorneys at law — one to every good rancher — enough to get the common people into and out of trouble 313 days in the year. We have 21 saloons in Sandpoint, when there should be but five. We have dozens of commercial houses …
“In all advertising matter sent east it should be made plain that North Idaho is full of leeches and that further importation is undesirable. The frugal, thrifty, labor-lov ing ruralists are the citizens we need for the solid welfare of this county, and the call should be made for this class.”
The conflict over who should benefit from the wealth of the woods — even how or whether they should benefit — landed on Pinchot himself, as the local papers trans formed him into a symbol for all that they despised about the “outside” influence on land management.
When then-President William Taft dismissed Pinchot from his post in January 1910, the Pend Oreille Review printed a decidedly unobjective item on the news.
“[S]tates which have been ‘blessed’ with
forest reserves greet Pinchot’s dismissal with every evidence of satisfaction,” the unsigned article stated, going on to refer to Roosevelt’s former right-hand man on land use matters as a hobbyist who came to “consider himself and his bureau as some thing sacred.”
“He rode his hobby horse to a fall,” the article continued.
At the root of the dislike for Pinchot and his forest policies was a strain of sec tionalism. According to the Review, “The contention of the West that the same form of government should exist here as existed in the development of the eastern states has been growing steadily and there are a great many more opposed to the forest reserve idea now than there were four and five years ago when Roosevelt put so much western land into forest reserves and thus took from settlement vast areas capable of sustaining great populations.”
“Certain eastern people, who selfishly believe the West is the property of the East and who are opposed to state control of its boundaries, will hail Pinchot as a martyr,” the article concluded. “The West, which wants to develop its own territory, will hail Pinchot’s retirement, however it was accomplished, as a signal victory over the bureaucratic form of government he had prescribed for the West.”
According to Sowards, at the U of I, the sectional nature of the conflict over how best to manage timberlands was more than a little disingenuous, with many partisans claiming “these are our woods,” while themselves being newcomers — “they quickly become ‘natives’ in a very short amount of time.”
Meanwhile, the first school of forestry in the U.S. was at Yale, “and I think the an ti-elitist perspective that we see so common today in 2022 was certainly the case 120 years ago as well,” Sowards said. “So there was this idea that you couldn’t understand the woods properly if you were educated at a college ‘Back East,’ which is how they would have put it.”
Likewise, the papers sniped at the “young men” who came from the East to mark out the reserve boundaries, suggesting that they “looked over the country with a spy glass and smoked cigarettes that they didn’t even roll,” spending “half their time fishing and the other time hunting.”
Still, according to the Pend Oreille Re view, Borah said he “believed in conservation of such lands as were timber lands” — though not that a sole federal agency should be whol ly in charge of making those designations.
The climate changed — literally and figuratively, in August 1910, when about 3 million acres of forest land went up in flames in northern Idaho and western Montana. What has come to be called “The Big Burn” or “The Great Fire of 1910” fundamentally altered how not only Northwesterners but the nation viewed land management.
For more than a decade, lumber compa nies had already partnered with local gov ernments and forest reserve administrators, coordinating to suppress fire and deal with pest and disease outbreaks. But the 1910 fire provided a stark lesson in how valuable a collaborative approach to protecting tim berland could be.
“Some people have argued that those fires were what really solidified political support for the Forest Service, to show the need for a national Forest Service but frankly it’s a national Fire Service, as well,” Sowards said.
Another factor in play was the ascendan cy of the big mills. By the 1910s most of the easily accessible and marketable timber had been cut and its underlying acreage claimed. The big timber “syndicates” were in control of what was left.
The newspapers of the era show a steady decline in individual “timber and stone” claims, replaced by large-scale land auctions hosted by regional mills, as they began dipping into their reserves. And those reserves were ample. According to one 1908 article in the Northern Idaho News, the Northern Pacific, Menasha Woodenware and Inland Lumber companies alone hadn’t even touched their holdings, amounting to 135,000 acres in total in Bonner County.
conversation shifted in the 1920s toward how protection of timberlands would secure future prosperity.
For instance, the Northern Idaho News carried a lengthy article on the blister rust “menace” affecting forests throughout the West in 1925. Ominously, the paper report ed, blister rust had moved “within a few miles of the northern boundary of Idaho.” This prompted collaboration between the state of Idaho, U.S. Department of Agricul ture and private timber owners to fight the blister rust.
Further detailing various efforts to fight the disease in Oregon and California, the paper posed a compelling question: “Is Tim ber Worth Protecting?”
The paper wrote, “In order to make local control effective and in many cases possible it is necessary that the owner balance the future value of these reproductive stands against the cost of local control.”
Such an opinion would have been a dis tinct minority in the previous decades.
Beyond the pure economics of the timberlands, the paper went further to point out that the health of the forests not only affected timber sales, but the overall environment.
One example cited by the Northern Idaho News was an attempt being made by the University of Idaho School of Forestry in 1926 to investigate the environmental, rather than commercial value, high-eleva tion five-needle pines.
“Should the blister rust sweep through these timber-line pines and destroy them little protection would be afforded the wa tersheds they once shaded, and streamflow water supply and irrigation would perhaps reflect the irreparable damage that was done,” the paper reported.
According to Sowards, “Anything that allows conservation to be practical I think makes it saleable to local residents.”
Despite the anti-conservation rhetoric in the newspapers, larger economic con ditions would soon shift public opinion creating opportunity for collaboration rather than conflict in the woods. Even Sen. William Borah — the “lion of Idaho” — in a mid-November 1909 visit to Sandpoint spoke of reaching a “middle ground” when it came to forest reserves.
Regardless, the political climate re mained such that he felt obliged to employ a bit of grandstanding. He joked that the reserve lands in Bonner County had been made by the brother of Sen. John McLaurin, of South Carolina, who “stood on the steps of the Murray Hotel and looked about him and designated the timber, agricultural and mining selections between drinks.”
With the mills in control of the majority of timber cutting and the vivid threat of devastating wildfire fresh in the region’s memory, the Forest Service, its rangers and reserves came to be seen more as partners than adversaries.
“Idahoans and other Westerners, too, within a pretty short amount of time real ized the restrictions [in the reserves] weren’t too terrible,” said Sowards, adding that fire suppression, tree nurseries and burgeoning research partnerships all ended up being a boon to timberland communities.
“That initial opposition was tamped down pretty quickly,” he said.
Far from the “cut-and-run” mentality and anti-forest reserve sentiment of the earlier part of the 20th century, the public
“When you first create forest reserves and say, ‘We’re marking this out, and this can’t be owned by a timber country or an individual anymore,’ that sounds really restrictive,” he said. “But when it ends up being some place where you can still cut trees with permits and can get help with firefighting and blister rust campaign support, it becomes a much more popular, practical thing to do.”
This article is the first in a multi-part series supported by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council and sponsored by Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. The second part will be published in the Thursday, Feb. 10 edition of the Reader For more information on this series, visit fspw.org.
‘Is timber worth protecting?’
Conservation: From the Timber Wars to Collaboration
The deep roots of 20th century timber politics — Part 2By Zach Hagadone Special to the Reader
The first part of this article appeared in the Feb. 3 edition of the Reader. Find it online at sandpointreader.com.
‘A national ownership’
In the Inland Northwest, the end of the 1920s saw many of the large lumber mills bought out by even larger corporations, in cluding Oregon-based Weyerhaeuser, which acquired Humbird’s holdings in 1929.
But by May of 1931, the Humbird store attached to the company’s mill in Kootenai, Idaho closed after 29 years, and by Decem ber 1931, the mill and store in Sandpoint shuttered its doors.
Within the space of a year, the panhandle’s largest employer— which had once extended its influence through nearly all aspects of everyday life — disappeared. But a new pe riod of collaboration in the forests was on the horizon, fueled by federal involvement.
As the Depression wore on, and the New Deal programs began affecting northern Idaho, the word “conservation” began crop ping up in the regional newspapers — and not as a derisive allusion to the “conserva tion theory” that animated the much-hated forest reserve policy of the Roosevelt administration more than 30 years earlier.
The Northern Idaho News in 1932 reported on what Chief Forester Robert Y. Stuart had to say about “forest problems” in the West: “The basic problem, according to the chief forester, is one of maintaining the power of the country’s forests to grow con tinuously the kinds and quantities of wood that our economic life will require.”
This was still a fundamentally economic problem. But, it was being framed different ly than in decades past.
According to Stuart’s report, “the com plete denudation of 60 million acres of land because of fire and bad logging practices” had resulted in “marked impairment of the economic and social values which depend upon our forest resources.”
Stuart believed that, “While policies and measures designed to promote conservation have had some effect on the balance, they have been insufficient to offset the powerful and relentless pressure of economic forces created by the pursuit of private profit.”
Reports such as these suggest that timber communities throughout the Western U.S. were in some cases waking up from a decades-long hangover. What these commu nities needed — and what the nation needed — was some rehabilitation. One of the most powerful tools for doing so came with the Civilian Conservation Corps. While being one of the briefest of the New Deal
programs, the so-called “Tree Army” was arguably one of its most successful in terms of transforming Americans’ view of their forests and themselves.
The Northern Idaho News of Nov. 3, 1933 carried a headline that would have been very much out of place 10 years prior: “Montanans Tell Views on CCC: Hundreds of Unsolicited Letters Give Praise to Con servation Program.”
This program, in addition to doing its basic work of fire protection, forest reclama tion, tree planting and infrastructure devel opment, was also a doorway to easing some of the sectionalism that infused the debate over forest land management in previous decades. As the article stated: “Of the about 18,000 CCCs in Montana and northern Idaho this last summer, approximately 16,000 were from the east. And, to a large extent, from eastern cities. That’s a big influx of outsiders and it may be interesting to learn what are the reactions of Montanans to the plan which provided for such an influx.”
The article went on to quote from a selection of letters received by the regional forester’s office in Missoula.
As one letter “from a logger and a father,” whose two native-born Montana sons were enrolled in CCC, stated, “The advent of east ern boys entering western forests has broad ened their ideas of the vast public domains
Left: Sagle loggers c. 1910. These are white pine logs. Right: The first logging truck in North Idaho. Photo taken on Trestle Creek between 1918 and 1919. James Campbell is driving and Dick Therien standing. Donated by Paul Croy. Photos courtesy Bonner County History Museum.
which belong to and which are supported by both east and west. Many of these young fel lows are going home with vanishing ideas of state or sectional lines and a broader vision of national unity of possession.”
Likewise, the letter-writer said CCC work had a similar effect on Westerners: “Many of the people of the west living in or contiguous to the national forests have had an erroneous idea of the vast public domains [as] an encroachment on their rights, but they are fast grasping the idea of a national ownership.”
This could hardly be a larger departure from the popular feelings in the region during the first 20-plus years of the century.
Another letter described as coming “from a college president” struck a similar — though frankly less eloquent — note: “I saw a number of the boys on the train on their way from the camps back to their New York homes. They had fine color and showed lots of vigor and enthusiasm. When these fellows get back to the cramped living conditions in New York, they are apt to
become pretty restless there, and will want to return to the conditions which built them up physically, gave them an appreciation of the worthwhileness of honest labor, and some insight into the glories and beauties of [a] natural mountain environment.”
Harkening to those earlier times of con flict over conservation, “an attorney” wrote: “I have always been an ardent advocate of the conservation of our forests and was greatly pleased when Theodore Roosevelt made it a major part of his program, al though it was then greatly condemned by all those who wanted to exploit our forests and make easy money in a very short time with out regard to the destruction of our forests to the detriment of the next generation.”
These sentiments are almost entirely absent — and certainly were not expressed with such force and clarity — from the newspaper articles published in the days of the “forest reserve” question.
“I think that that sounds very much like the mission of the CCC,” said Adam So wards, an environmental historian who serves as director of the Pacific Northwest Studies Program at the University of Idaho. “It’s an attempt to rehabilitate the woods, to rehabil itate the young men who were there working to also help rehabilitate the economy.”
And it worked.
“The time these men spent doing these jobs — it’s just a few years, I mean, the pro gram did not last very long, not even a full decade — it transformed those men not only physically and economically, but their whole sense of themselves and of the nation and of nature, I think really was in some cases radically transformed,” Sowards added.
The presence of the CCC was especial ly felt in Idaho and more so in northern Idaho, which according to the Northern Idaho News, in 1933 had the most camps: 23 emergency conservation forest camps in Montana, eight in Glacier, four in Yellow stone, four in Washington and 52 in the Idaho panhandle.
The effect this had on the public’s perception of forest conservation was underscored in a Northern Idaho News article in 1934, which bore another headline that would have been inconceivable in the previous 30 years: “Must Push Fight for Conservation.”
That news item detailed the creation of the Clearwater River Valley Conservation League, which drew more than 200 attend ees and delegates from Lewis, Clearwater, Nez Perce and Asotin counties. This organi zation, however, touched on another distinct strain of argument in favor of conservation, which had been quietly growing for the past decade: recreation, and its interplay with environmental health.
“If sportsmen and game conservationists had organized and fought for preservation and conservation 20 years ago, there would
be no problems of overgrazing, soil erosion and fish and game propagation,” said Tom Lally, the Spokane chairman of the Wash ington Fish and Game Commission, speak ing at the meeting in Lewiston.
The new league adopted a “broad program,” including “the propagation and protection of all wild game and fish, protection and conservation of forests and mountain areas constituting the watersheds of the streams, conservation and protection of timber and forest resources, improvement and conservation of natural grazing areas, prevention of improper use and pollution of streams, and the fostering of good sports manship and fellowship among the sports men of the area.”
Lally said that “Roosevelt has a real program for conservation,” and, “Last ses sion with representatives at the legislature we gained more than in all the other years together.”
Furthermore, Lally took aim at chambers of commerce and other groups that never lifted a finger to preserve game resources.
“The outdoors is the only thing we have to sell outside buyers for spot cash,” he said.
‘A great national playground’
A curious event took place in Boise in March 1936, when retired U.S. Army Captain Burt B. Spilman, delivered a speech on the topic of economics, recreation and conservation in Idaho.
Spilman’s talk was a refutation of another address given by well-known Idaho author Vardis Fisher. According to the paper’s report, Fisher had said Idaho was “finished” except for phosphate extraction and recreation. Spilman took exception to that, arguing that while “the state needs to develop its recreational resources and en courage tourists,” it was still rich in timber, mining, electrical power generation and agricultural resources.
According to the paper, both men agreed that “the state should be advertised and tourist money should be brought to Amer ica’s last frontier in order to develop here a great national playground,” but Spilman took issue with Fisher’s inconsistent claim that Idaho had too many miles of highways.
“Eastern tourists must have good high ways in order to reach the recreation areas of Idaho,” Spilman said. “Tourists are not going to ride horses and drag pack animals into the back country to reach hunting and fishing areas.”
At their basic level, Spilman and Fisher were expressing a complex of ideas not only about the notion of recreation and conservation as valuable economic drivers in themselves, but the best way to go about encouraging them both.
According to Sowards, these ideas were rooted in a belief that there were places that represented “the pioneer past of America and they were worth protecting and left as is.” Some people at the time felt that these “prim
itive” experiences — as they would call them — were critical to American identity. Sometimes called the Wilderness Move ment, the idea of protecting landscapes for their own sake can be found dating back at least to the turn of the century — and certain ly the National Park system established by Theodore Roosevelt’s administration was an expression of that. But, it didn’t take a central place in the wider conversation about conser vation until the late-1920s and early-1930s.
“I think the reason that you see it rising in importance [in that era] is because the pressure comes from the widespread access to the automobile and airplanes and backcountry airstrips that allow people to penetrate into these places and, on the one hand, there’s an opportunity to get into the backcountry and to go hunting, and then you’ve also got people saying, ‘I’m not sure we want to do that; we want to make sure we’ve got some places where we keep these machines out,’” Sowards said, pointing to the creation of the Idaho Primitive Area in 1931 as an example.
“The 1920s and the ’30s seem to be the hinge on which this recreation boom swings, and I don’t think you ever see it going away after that,” he said.
However, that’s not to say that recreation advocates were necessarily opponents of resource extraction.
“That’s often been the case, but in the ’20s and ’30s era, part of the argument is
not against cutting trees or mining; part of the argument is against too much mech anized outdoor recreation and too many tourists and the need to preserve places where you can have what they would have called a more ‘primitive’ experience in the outdoors,” Sowards added.
Just how radically ideas about forest land management had changed since the turn of the 20th century can be seen with the 1935 publication in the Journal of For estry of an article titled “The Passing of the Lolo Trail,” by Elers Koch.
A native of Bozeman, Mont., and one of the lead foresters in fighting the Great Fire of 1910, Koch bemoaned the over-development of backcountry spaces in the West — and northern Idaho in particular — sneering at the Forest Service’s version of “progress.”
“It opened up the wilderness with roads and telephone lines, and airplane landing fields. It capped the mountain peaks with white-painted lookout houses, laced the ridges and streams with a network of trails and telephone lines, and poured in thou sands of firefighters year after year in a vain attempt to control forest fires,” he wrote.
“Has all this effort and expenditure of millions of dollars added anything to human good? Is it possible that it was all a ghastly mistake like plowing up the good buffalo grass sod of the dry prairies? Has the coun try as it stands now as much human value
as it had in the nineties when Major Fenn’s forest rangers first rode into it?”
His answer, of course, was “no.” And the culprit, he argued, was the thousands of miles of road and communication infra structure put in place by the Forest Service with the express purpose of suppressing forest fires, yet “the results in fire control have been almost negligible.”
“Every really bad fire season has seen great conflagrations sweep completely be yond control, nullifying the results of every fire extinguished in the more favorable seasons,” Koch wrote.
His solution — which would have been nearly unthinkable to suggest in the years preceding his article — was to leave the for ests alone and let them burn as they would.
In essence, greater conservation of wildlands could be achieved by not trying to “save” them from fire. Referring to the Clearwater River, Selway-Bitterroot Wilder ness and Bitterroot National Forest Koch argued that, “Its special recreational values were probably greater than they are after thirty years of Forest Service management.” He later concluded, “[I]t is time to withdraw from a losing game before more millions are expended with little or no results.”
Sowards noted that the editors of the Journal of Forestry recognized the unorth odoxy of Koch’s argument, and appended a disclaimer stating their awareness of how
controversial it would be. Yet, he said, the article represented a “really interesting mo ment of reflection about the futility of being able to actually control something like fire in such a vast landscape.”
It also ended up being rather prophetic, in that it hinted at future criticisms of the Forest Service for over-managing forest lands — to the detriment of everything from ecology to recreation.
Into the late-1930s and through the war years, Eler Koch remained an outlier. As the Great Depression continued, the newspapers became ever-more laudatory of the Civilian Conservation Corps and, to an extent, the Forest Service itself.
Even better, the collaborative efforts en gendered by the CCC’s work in the forests was an economic windfall at a time when money was tight all over. The Daily Bulletin in Sandpoint put some hard figures to that boon in a July 1936 article, reporting that business and industry in Idaho had benefited to the tune of $26 million during the pre vious three years of the CCC’s operations. That amount would have exceeded $500 million in 2022 dollars.
The Northern Idaho News in 1938 described the CCC as “a sound practical national institution for conserving youth” as well as the nation’s forestlands — reversing the damage done by decades of “cut-and-
run” logging practices, protecting it from fire and other ecological threats, and carving out a “great national playground.”
“Each year millions of persons use the forests and parks of the nation for healthful outdoor recre ation,” The Northern Ida ho News wrote. “Through their labors in developing park and forest lands for recreational purpos es, CCC enrollees have opened up hundreds of thousands of acres of land for the use of the people during their nonworking hours and on vacations.”
Beneath the triumphal ism of the period, however, were the seeds of new conflicts that would only deepen as time went on. Paradoxically, the deep collaboration between the federal government, state and local agencies, and industry set the stage for showdowns over who and what belongs in the woods.
Even before Koch penned “The Passing of the Lolo Trail,” federal forester Rob ert Marshall could see where things were headed, with industry beginning to exert increased pressure on public lands.
The son of a constitutional lawyer, re form activist and conservationist, Marshall served several stints in the Forest Service, including in Missoula, Mont. in the mid1920s, and by 1937 had risen to the head of the newly created Forest Service Division of Recreation and Lands.
He contributed the section on recreation in the 1933 National Plan for American Forestry, in which he presented a radical vision for the future protection of the nation’s woods.
In the “Copeland Report,” so called because it was commissioned by New York Sen. Royal Copeland, Marshall argued that as much as 10% of all the forest lands in
the U.S. be designated as recreation areas. What’s more, he advocated for establishing the Forest Service’s millions of acres of roadless holdings as wildernesses or “prim itive areas” and, even more sweeping, the federal government should fully regulate timber harvesting on private as well as public lands.
“This is a socialist argument and certainly there was opposition to that but they didn’t look at him like he was completely crazy,” Sowards said. “In fact, that idea continued to be bandied about in the 1940s and early 1950s — the idea of getting it all if not con trolled by the federal government then hav ing a set of rules and regulations that would be abided by even on private timberland.”
The debate over the Copeland Report
spilled into the postwar period and onto the pages of the Journal of Forestry. Mean while, the large mill owners pushed back, fearing their loss of discretion and control over access to federal forest lands.
While adapting some of the Copeland Report’s recommendations to the New Deal — including more vigorous fire suppression efforts — Roosevelt shied from federal control of private timberlands. And, though similar calls for federal control continued, Congress, too, consistently refused to act.
Marshall died of a heart attack in 1939, and so didn’t live to see what he’d feared would transpire as the U.S. exited World War II a fundamentally different nation — one that despite its burgeoning conservation ethos in the 1930s now looked on federal forests as industrial assets.
“Governments, whether state or fed eral, can work most effectively and easily with larger concerns, larger companies, industries, etc., and so there’s an effort in the ’30s with the New Deal to write codes that guided working conditions and wages and production schedules and those sorts of things,” Sowards said. “Often the New Deal is seen as hostile to big business but in this case … in a large respect these legal codes get written by the industries themselves.”
The upshot to that relationship was that small mill owners were cut out to the benefit of the big timber operations, which now had a much greater stake in controlling public lands.
“If you are a large timber owner in 1900 you probably don’t have to worry a whole lot about it because you have control of enough timber for yourself to keep your mills running and don’t have to think about federal conservation in any sort of way,” Sowards said. “The 1930s start to be around that time when your own land might be cut over a little bit, you’ve got this depression happening and that’s when they might end up in some of these agreements with the federal government, and by the time you hit World War II things might shift a little bit because a lot of the private timber holdings had been depleted by then.”
With the onset of World War II and the lessening of the Great Depression, Sowards said demand for raw materials — including timber — began a steady, then dramatic, upswing. Construction experienced an his toric boom in the wake of the war, feeding on the massive expansion of suburbs around the country. While the amount of timber cutting off the national forests had been a “pittance” before the early-1940s, “If you go and look up timber harvest levels on fed eral forests you see them really boost after World War II,” Sowards said.
“By the 1950s the Forest Service is a super-willing collaborator with private timber interests,” Sowards said, adding that the pro-Marshall advocates in the Journal of Forestry had lost their battle to convince the national government to take the lead in
conserving its own forests.
“They just decide to allow private industry to ransack the public forests in a whole lot of ways. I think that’s how I look at it,” he added.
From the “cut-and-run” mentality and fierce opposition to forest reserves as an unwanted “eastern” notion of conserva tion-by-bureaucracy; to the recognition of the practical benefits of preserving forests for economic, ecological and recreational uses; to the opening of the forests for “ran sack” by commercial interests, the vision for public lands had fundamentally altered over the course of 50 years. Swinging from conflict to collaboration and back again, the contours of the politics and opinions regarding conservation would continue to swing for the following 50 years and beyond — deeply informed by the ground that had been gained and lost, often literally, in the past, and establishing patterns that would come to a dramatic flashpoint with the late-century “Timber Wars.”
This article is the second part of the first installment in a multi-part series sup ported by a grant from the Idaho Human ities Council and sponsored by Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. The first part appeared in the Feb. 3 edition of the Reader. Subsequent parts will be published in the Reader in the spring and summer. For more information on this series, visit scotchmanpeaks.org.
Conservation: From the Timber Wars to collaboration
How the ‘Baby Boom’ and the suburbs set the stage for the ‘Timber Wars’By Zach Hagadone Reader Staff
The so-called “Timber Wars” are generally described as having occurred in the 1980s and ’90s. It was a period of conflict waged in both the woods and the courtroom between lumber companies and environmentalists. The federal govern ment was stuck in the middle, sometimes regarded as the enemy, sometimes an ally. The reality is more complex. The “wars” are better understood as a series of battles between a constellation of competing and complementary interests. The involved parties jockeyed for economic, political and often social positions.
In North Idaho that meant everyone, to varying degrees, had a stake in the conflict. Some “won,” some “lost,” yet all used the woods as an avatar for their visions of the landscape. The so-called “West” and its attendant lands were never “won;” they’ve been constantly contested and still are today.
This is the story of how the United States navigated notions of conserving its primary commodity — land and the things that grow on it — while leveraging them into its mid-20th century ascendancy, and the bitter conflicts over how that commodi ty should be managed in a flashpoint known as the “Timber Wars.”
‘Getting out the cut’
By 1906, about 23,000 square miles of Idaho lands had been absorbed into “forest reserves” — a policy initiated by then-Pres ident Theodore Roosevelt and the precursor to the National Forest System.
That same year, Idaho Sen. Weldon Heyburn denounced the forest reserves from his seat in Congress. On behalf of the powerful mining and lumber interests of his home constituency in the Silver Valley of North Idaho, Heyburn argued: “It is men we want, not trees.”
A year later, in 1907, Roosevelt’s chief forester Gifford Pinchot — head of the newly created U.S. Forest Service — trav eled to Coeur d’Alene to hear the com plaints of Heyburn’s supporters in person. He told them why it was necessary to con serve the nation’s timberlands amid an era of “cut-and-run” logging practices, wherein
timber cutting operations both big and small “skinned the land” and moved on with no thought beyond immediate profit.
“Forests are disappearing so rapidly that it is estimated that none will remain in 30 or 40 years unless action is taken by the gov ernment to protect them,” he said, warning that, “we are rushing with railroad speed toward a timber famine worse than any coal famine that we have ever experience or are in danger of soon.”
The timber famine didn’t material ize. Attitudes toward forest conservation changed dramatically from Pinchot’s days through the 1930s and early-’40s. During the first two decades of the 20th century the mentality was to “cut and run.” But by the immediate pre-World War II era, that
notion had been replaced by increasingly complex ideas about the balance between industrial, recreational and ecological uses for timberlands.
Meanwhile, “conservation” as both a term and a goal had transformed from a lot of “moonshine,” as one former Idaho gover nor put it in the first decades of the century, to a critical piece of policy that underpinned everything that happened in the forests.
However, as with so many other aspects of American life, everything changed with the country’s emergence from both the Great Depression and the war.
According to Adam Sowards, a pro fessor of environmental history who also serves as director of the Pacific Northwest Studies Program at the University of Idaho,
by the end of World War II in 1945, most of the big timber companies had either ex hausted their private land holdings or pretty well cut through them. At the same time, service members were returning from the battlefields and starting families in record numbers — the “Baby Boom” was on, and that meant a spike in new home building. While the cities expanded in population, the real growth occurred in outlying areas, as an increasingly mobile and affluent population looked for and found its domestic bliss in ever-expanding suburbs.
“Building those houses required timber,” Sowards said, but with the lumber compa nies short on their privately owned supply, “the federal forests became the preferred site of our source of lumber.”
There was debate about the wisdom of dipping into the federal forest reserves — by then established as National Forests — which Sowards described as an argument for an “almost socialized timber policy, where federal regulations would also guide private timberlands as well.”
Those voices included Robert Marshall, the “Bob” in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in western Montana. His contribu tion to the Franklin D. Roosevelt-era “Co peland Report” (so named for New York Sen. Royal Copeland, who commissioned the study) presented a radically different view of public land management.
Marshall’s policy recommendations were truly revolutionary, calling for 10% of forestlands in the U.S. to be set aside as recreational areas. He also pushed for put ting millions of acres of U.S. Forest Service roadless areas into a perpetual wilderness or “primitive area” designation, and federal oversight of timber harvesting on both pub lic and private lands.
“[I]n the ’40s, there’s a surprisingly vig orous debate about whether that’s the right direction to go,” Sowards said of harvesting on federal forests. Meanwhile, “there’s a big push to cut more trees — they talked about ‘getting out the cut,’ which was sort of a catchphrase for that.”
In Bonner County, the renewed vigor in the timber market had no greater champion than Jim Parsons, who wrote the “Outdoors Notebook” column in the Sandpoint News Bulletin throughout the 1950s. His articles, again and again, circled back to the idea that private lumber companies should have total
access to public lands. In his mind, “conser vation” was an empty platitude compared to “getting out the cut.”
“There are some strange aspects to the forestry side of the conservation picture,” Parsons wrote in the Oct. 18, 1951 edition of the News Bulletin. “Even here in north Idaho we still have many people who cling to the old wood-famine philosophy that the nation is running out of timber. …
“The ill-informed fail to recognize, first, that trees are Nature’s one renewable resource; and second, that the lumbering industry gener ally, along with a growing army of farmers, is doing a commendable job of forest man agement, which has as its goal a continuing supply of timber for generations to come.”
A year later, in November 1952, Parsons wrote, “A majority of Idahoans, I believe, would like to see both our state and our state’s private enterprise have major control of our national resources, rather than getting dictums from some Washington swiv el-chair operator who has never been west of Notre Dame’s football field.
“A case in point is our forests. Some, not all, but some high-ranking government officials have been preaching timber famine for years and among them, you can number the secretaries of interior and agriculture,” he continued. “They have led a very consider able number of people, both in forested and non-forested areas, to the belief that if we are to ‘conserve’ timber resources, then we actu ally must preserve the trees on the stump.”
Parsons regarded that not only as “an untenable position, it verges on being silly.”
Rather, he argued that “good management means regarding trees as a crop, protect ing them during the growing period, then harvesting them when they become mature.” What’s more, he railed against federal regu lations of forest lands as “socialistic.”
In June 1956, Parsons delivered a full-throated denunciation of conservation itself: “Generally speaking, everyone is for conservation just as he is against sin. Trouble is that all hands haven’t agreed on just what conservation is. … To say that conservation is wise management of resources for the benefit of the greatest number is also without meaning, for there is no general agreement on what constitutes benefits.”
Parsons may not have known it, but the views he expounded in his column to the few thousand readers in the Sandpoint News Bul letin in the 1950s echoed a strain of think ing about timberlands that would remain economically and politically powerful into the present day.
Quoting from National Wildlife Federa tion Executive Director Ernest Swift, Parsons wrote in 1956, but just as well could have been said in 2022: “Public ownership of re sources is often used as the horrible example of socialism when said ownership interferes with grabbing a fast buck. On the other hand, the welfare state as it now exists in our midst
becomes the acme of humanitarianism; but just how much soil erosion has been stopped by a Social Security number, how many for est fires put out by unemployment compen sation; how much sludge has been dredged from our rivers by a minimum wage law?”
Whatever ground may have been gained by the conservation ethic in the 1930s and early ’40s was being rapidly eroded in the immediate post-war period by a new drive to feed the national hunger for timber from the reserves of the public forests. It wasn’t “cut and run,” but “run to cut,” and would set the stage for escalating conflict in the following three decades.
everything for everybody’
Not everyone was as enthused as Parsons about transforming government-owned forestlands into “crops” to be harvested in service of the suburban building boom. The same year that Parsons penned his screed against conservation as a noble idea lacking substance, work began on legislation that would become the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Eight years of compromise led to its passage and signature into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, though the effort was spurred by outrage. Some adherents of the “Wilderness Movement” in the 1930s regard ed the law as an unwarranted reclassification of “primitive” or “wild areas” into merchant able timberlands.
According to Sowards, the Forest Service, in its willingness to accommo date lumber companies, had embarked on a wide-ranging policy of opening fringe areas of previously protected forest areas to cutting.
“The Forest Service tried to say, ‘This part is currently in a primitive area but we’re going to cut out this river valley where there’s all this merchantable timber.’ That starts happening in the 1950s most prominently, and local groups get up in arms about this,” he said.
“At the same time there’s that pressure to protect some lands as permanently out of the way for any sort of commercial harvest ing, the Forest Service is ramping up the intensification of its management.”
That was a recipe for a political colli sion. Idaho Sen. Frank Church, for whom the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness area is named, partnered with then-Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey — and later vice president under Johnson — to resurrect the conservation ethic of an earlier era with a proposal in spring 1959 to estab lish a Youth Conservation Corps.
Modeled on the Franklin D. Roos evelt-era Civilian Conservation Corps, the Church-Humphrey proposal envisioned “a smaller and more education-oriented corps,” as Church described it in a March 12, 1959 article in the Sandpoint News Bulletin.
“The record points out that Idaho’s part in the Civilian Conservation Corps was a major contribution to the success of that
splendid program in natural and human resource conservation,” Church said, adding that the proposed YCC “would again see Idaho in the van of those states affording the training ground.”
He and Humphrey wanted 150,000 young men to lend their hands to “improv ing timber stands, building forest trails and roads, constructing earthen dams, rebuilding game cover, improving campgrounds, fight ing forest fires and reseeding deteriorated rangelands,” just as their fathers and uncles had a generation earlier.
“There are many monuments to the CCC in Idaho. They include vast healthy stands of timber that were protected from disease and fire; trails and roads into the wilderness; dams and seeded stream banks that have protected against erosion; bridges, camp grounds and facilities; and not to be forgot ten, the enriched lives of men who served and contributed,” Church said at the time.
As with Marshall’s idealism in the “Copeland Report” in the 1940s, the YCC project fizzled amid the mood of national expansion in the late ’50s.
Although former-First Lady Elea nor Roosevelt wrote in favor of the Church-Humphrey YCC proposal, testimo ny on the bill in May 1959 ran against its necessity.
According to a record of the hearings, American Forestry Association Chief Forest er Kenneth B. Pomeroy declined to testify in favor, writing, “The American Forestry Asso ciation can only consider this proposal from the standpoint of forest conservation. From that viewpoint it appears to be a Depression measure. Such is not the case today.
“If the national economy should decline to a point where public make-work mea sures are in order, then our association would recommend that the program be carried out through the established public land agencies.”
There was no appetite for the aspira tional conservation thinking of the previous decades. The late-1950s and 1960s were to be an era of national ascendance, built on the stumps of the country’s public lands.
The Wilderness Act, however, did put in place meaningful protections for forest lands, accompanied by a subsequent flurry of legislation in the ’60s such as the Nation al Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Act.
However, that period of intensive con servation-oriented lawmaking still couldn’t outweigh the drive to “get out the cut.” Forest Service timber sales increased and harvests continued to go up on public lands.
Sowards framed that duality as indica tive of a wider trend in U.S. policy amid the Cold War.
“I think there’s a feeling at this time, from the ’50s through the ’70s, that manag ers think they can do everything for every
body,” he said. “Looking back that seems super naive, but I think if you look more broadly at American society at that time, we think, ‘Hey we can beat the Russians, we can beat the Vietnamese, we can put people on the moon, we can do anything.’ And I think the conservation version of that is we can have full timber harvests, we can have wilderness protection, we can have high use of National Parks, we can have good rangeland for domestic animals.’
“There’s a belief that we can do all of these things,” he added. “The evidence on the land becomes harder and harder to ignore.”
‘People are not very predictable’
Clear-cutting is ugly. There’s no way around it — when an entire mountainside is denuded, it looks like nothing other than a scar. Even at a distance of miles, the results of a clear cut are clearly brutal. The practice had been in place for about a century by the mid-1970s, frequently employed on lands owned by railroad companies, which exem plified the “cut-and-run” method that typified late-19th and early-20th century lumbering.
Opponents of the practice found a way to challenge it in court, leveraging a hitherto obscure piece of legislation known as the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946. In essence, the law represented a legal shift
allowing the public to formally challenge federal policies in ways they hadn’t been able to previously.
Two lawsuits in western Montana and West Virginia related to massive clear-cut ting served as a hinge in the longtime de bate over how timber should — or shouldn’t — be harvested.
“What results out of these lawsuits is the National Forest Management Act of 1976, which hamstrings the Forest Service a little bit,” Sowards said. “It doesn’t outright ban clear cuts but clear cuts come out of that cam paign much less popular than they had been. It became harder for those to happen on federal lands — not impossible, but harder.”
That’s one outcome, but in more finegrained detail, Jay O’Laughlin, a national ly-recognized “academic forester,” in his words, and professor emeritus of forestry and policy sciences at the University of Idaho, said the National Forest Management Act is “at the core” of the “Timber Wars.”
According to O’Laughlin, the National Forest Management Act outlined what could be done on the land, but not specifically what could be done “on an acre of ground.”
Local conditions had to be taken into account and public involvement became required in the planning process. That was the critical piece: public involvement.
However, there were unintended conse quences.
“The National Forest Management Act
also says you need to reforest these areas after you harvest them,” he said. “That has in a perverse kind of way continued the em phasis on clear-cutting. The National Forest Management Act did not ban clear-cutting but it limited clear-cutting to 40 acres. Before that happened, clear cuts covered in some cases thousands of acres.”
Gone were the “skinned-over” tracts of stump fields. But by some interpretations, the reforestation requirement and the 40acre limitation made the treatment of trees as a crop the most cost-efficient way to harvest timber.
Meanwhile, by the 1970s, the glorified expertise of Cold War managerial culture — which purported to be able to “do everything for everybody” — was being confronted with the true complexity of the environmen tal, political, economic and social systems it was supposed to be “managing.”
“You’re talking about 193 million acres here, just with the National Forests. So that’s going to be messy,” O’Laughlin said. “This is the thing about forestry and why it’s so interesting: Every acre of ground is different from every other acre. Every stand of timber is unique in many, many ways, and so it’s hard to generalize about things that are so fundamentally different.”
That messiness was navigated by giving public interest groups a pathway to the table along with the “specialists,” who had previ ously acted with more or less impunity.
“Up to this point, and before these things get implemented, forest managers have a whole lot of discretion,” Sowards said, “and that erodes a little bit over these decades that are coming. That’s tough for people who used to be able to make the decisions and just make it happen, and now there are forms and there’s ecological studies and you have to talk to people and people are not very predictable, so it becomes a whole lot harder process to manage.”
Into the mix as well, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 — part of the raft of environmental legislation during the John son-Nixon eras — would come to serve as a powerful lever in the conflicts to come.
“All these things sort of come to a head in lots of different places, but most symbolically in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s around the northern spotted owl,” Sowards said.
And it’s the owl — and more so what it represented — around which the “Timber Wars” revolved.
This article is another installment in a multi-part series supported by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council and spon sored by Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. The next piece in this series will be published in the Thursday, June 9 edition of the Reader. For more information on this series, visit scotchmanpeaks.org.
Conservation: From the Timber Wars to collaboration
The Timber Wars move from the coastal forests to the inner-mountain streamsBy Zach Hagadone Special to the Reader
This article is part of a series supported by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Coun cil and sponsored by Friends of the Scotch man Peaks Wilderness. Previous installments were published in the Feb. 3, Feb. 10 and June 2 edition of the Reader. For more infor mation on this series, which will conclude in the fall, visit scotchmanpeaks.org.
Anyone who lived in the Northwest in the 1980s and ’90s heard an opinion about the spotted owl. Despite being a rare species — and not present in Idaho at all — the diminutive bird loomed large in the political imagination of Northwesterners as the symbol of the “Timber Wars.”
The habitat of the spotted owl — Strix occidentalis to specialists — consists almost entirely within the temperate rainforest climates from the southwest of British Columbia down the coastal regions of Washington, Oregon and California, and including a swathe of the desert Southwest U.S. and into northern Mexico, being espe cially habituated to coniferous forests and canyons full of dense woods.
As The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds puts it, the spotted owl “is rather rare in much of the West. It lives in dense stands of mature forests. The cutting of roads through forests has been followed by the disappearance of the spotted owl in the area.”
Typically, spotted owls grow to between 16 ½ and 19 inches, and are character ized by their dark brown coloration with white spots and large, dark eyes. They lay between two and three white eggs in the natural cavities of trees or canyon walls, and sometimes repurpose abandoned hawks nests. They are delicate creatures, with great sensitivity to changes in the very spe cific environments in which they live.
“That status of the spotted owl is under study to see what additional protection it needs beyond that which covers all owls,” according to the 18th edition of Audubon, published in 1992 — right in the thick of the conflict around which the species revolved.
Slugs, bugs, owls and fish
In 1992, it was common in Northwest lumber towns — even far from the range
of spotted owls, such as in North Idaho — to see bumper stickers, signs and T-shirts bearing the iconic Campbell’s soup label, though altered to read: “Logger’s Cream of Spotted Owl Soup.” There were similar sarcastic food items such as “Spotted Owl Helper,” riffing on Hamburger Helper, and restaurants in the region even offered menu items satirically referring to the spotted owl as a foodstuff.
Few animals have ever drawn such wide spread — and vitriolic — condemnation, all because their habitat happened to be the same acres of ground on which the country had been increasingly “getting out the cut” to feed its need for lumber to build the suburbs and provide the timber products demanded by the people who lived in them in the de cades following the end of World War II.
With private timber stands cut over yet the demand for wood ever increasing, the public forests set aside during the Theodore Roosevelt administration in the first decade of the 20th century had been nibbled at for the greater part of three decades by the time then-President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973.
By the 1980s and early ’90s, that nib bling had progressed into some of the most ecologically fragile acreage in the West. That wouldn’t have raised much political opposition in previous decades, but by the waning decades of the 20th century, the public had more tools with which to oppose timber sales on public lands.
Empowered by the wave of federal envi ronmental legislation enacted in the Kenne
dy, Johnson and Nixon eras — as well as the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 — it was now possible for conservation activists to take their concerns into the courtroom, and the spotted owl became a powerful lever with which to slow or even halt timber sales in the Pacific Northwest, particularly.
Each owl needs a wide range of territory in which to hunt, mate and rear their offspring. So one strategy to oppose timber cutting in their old-growth habitat was to establish buf fer zones around their nests — often so large as to make tree harvesting impractical.
The result was a raft of lawsuits and judicial decisions that ground timber sales and harvesting to a near standstill by the late-1980s and early-’90s. In the meantime, direct action against timber operations was making conditions tense in the woods of Washington, Oregon and California.
People climbed into trees marked for cutting and refused to move. Some drove spikes into trees as an act of sabotage — hit by a chainsaw, the metal would shear away into potentially deadly shards at worst but, in the meantime, disable the equipment. There was also vandalism of bulldozers and logging trucks.
The most dramatic conflict occurred in Oregon, where protesters against one tim ber-cutting operation built an encampment that the NPR series Timber Wars in 2021 described as “a 17th-century fort,” which looked more like a latter-day motte-andbailey stronghold. Some protesters chained themselves to concrete blocks sunk into the soil of logging roads in order to block
access. There were physical confrontations, arrests and a mood of impending violence.
Collaboration had never been further from the agenda in the woods.
Conditions had become so dire — both with the suspension of lumbering operations and the potential for loss of life — that then-President Bill Clinton in his first term intervened.
“President Clinton called a timber sum mit in 1994. He hadn’t been president for very long and he said, ‘Well, we’re going to break the logjam,’” said Jay O’Laughlin, a nationally-recognized scholar of forestry and professor emeritus of forestry and poli cy sciences at the University of Idaho.
Clinton brought Vice President Al Gore, as well as the secretaries of the interior, agriculture and commerce, to Portland, Ore., and, “What they decided was that they would do a special plan for all the spotted owl forests … and we will have one plan for all of these forests and it will save the spotted owl.”
The Northwest Forest Plan of 1994 represented a seachange.
“This is where the ‘survey and man age’ thing came about — it was part of the Northwest Forest Plan, and they were to protect every plant and animal in these for ests — not just those that are threatened and endangered; all the slugs and bugs as well,” O’Laughlin said.
Spotted owls may have featured as the central species in the fight in the forests on the West Coast, but close watchers of the Timber Wars agree that it was “a surrogate for saving the big trees,” O’Laughlin added.
Indeed, even at the time, some conserva tion activists worried that putting so much emphasis on the spotted owl as the avatar for all forest protection could end up backfiring and ultimately endanger the environmental protections it had been framed to serve.
“They said, ‘How can we save these big trees, save them from the chainsaw, the tim ber harvesting that’s spreading across the forests that we love. What if we could find a species that was threatened and endangered and fell under the Endangered Species Act and its habitat would have to be managed specifically for that species?’ And, lo and behold, they found the spotted owl.”
Other species had factored in similar ways in similar conflicts. In Tennessee, it had been the tiny snail darter fish at the center of a conflict over a dam to build a reservoir.
“That was an interesting case that paral lels the spotted owl, but it’s really not about timber; it’s about managing the resources for what different people want from them,” O’Laughlin said, and, in Idaho, with its non-existent spotted owl population, the contest over resource management had more to do with the “spotted fish,” that is, salmon.
From the forests to the mountain streams
Amid the escalating conflict in Northwest forests, the Clinton plan in ’94 added yet another level of complexity to the philosophy of “management” of forestlands. Between the Endangered Species Act, the various wilderness plans and the Northwest Forest Plan, the “everything for everybody” concept of the previous decades was cracking apart.
“What people feared was, ‘They’re going to reduce the timber harvest on the federal forests in spotted owl country, but all that’s going to do is push the demand east, across the Cascade Crest into the other federal forests, so we can’t allow that to happen,’” O’Laughlin said.
The result of that fear was an offshoot of the Northwest Forest Plan, which was craft ed to address the non-coastal Columbia Riv er Basin — the so-called Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project, or ICBEMP, planned to manage the enormous region east of the Cascade Mountains to Montana and south to Boise.
“This plan came up with, ‘Oh gosh, we don’t have spotted owls but we have spotted fish so they need wider buffer zones than the Forest Practices Act,’” O’Laughlin said, referring to another piece of legislation from the 1970s that sought to establish best practices for commercial activities on state, county and private lands. In Idaho, the FPA passed the Legislature in 1974, with the mission to “assure the continuous growing and harvesting of forest tree species and to
protect and maintain the forest soil, air, wa ter resources, wildlife and aquatic habitat.”
As with the spotted owl in the forests of the West Coast rainforests, in the Inter mountain West it would now be the fish who needed buffer zones — increased from 150 feet to 300 feet, or the span of two “height potential” trees on a given acre of ground.
“So that effectively took right around 10% of the federal forests in Idaho off the table as a result of that just for the riparian buffers,” said O’Laughlin, who was deeply involved in the studies that led to implementing those policies. “It’s a similar effect to the spotted owl, but it was done for a spotted fish.”
One of the first studies O’Laughlin performed at the Policy and Analysis Group at the University of Idaho was focused on how to protect water quality in forests; and, among the key findings, was to leave stream-side buffer zones.
“The question was, and we were asked to answer this question, ‘How wide should these buffer strips be?,’” he said.
After reviewing the prevailing litera ture and publishing a review, O’Laughlin’s group found that “everything is site spe cific.” In some cases, a five-foot buffer of grass was found to be sufficient on grazing land. On steep mountain sides, about 150 feet was usually sufficient.
However, “citizen conservation groups” — a term that O’Laughlin prefers to “envi ronmentalists” — argued that wasn’t ade quate; and, noting that there were threatened and endangered fish throughout the West, made the case that the buffer strips should be wider than what the Forest Practices Act said they should be.
“As a result, we have — and this was a direct offshoot of the spotted owl battle during the Timber Wars — we had the riparian buffer zone battle, which extended the fight outside the spotted owl forests and into the rivers and streams in the mountains,” he said.
By the mid-1990s, policy had become so labyrinthine, and the passions so high, that the disposition of these lands was being debated in the courtroom instead of the boardrooms of industry, as well as on the ground, with activists putting their bodies between the managers and the acres they were supposed to be managing.
“It’s at that point — that’s when the strength of the grassroots activism and these laws finally come to bear, and it’s at that point when you see timber harvest levels re ally radically drop,” said Adam Sowards, a professor of environmental history who also serves as director of the Pacific Northwest Studies Program at the University of Idaho.
According to Sowards, “massive timber sales and poor management of endangered species is what actually set the stage” for the turning point of the trouble in the forests during the 1980s and ’90s, with opponents in the citizen conservation groups now using the law to make their case.
“I think bad stuff happened on the land
and I think people called the Forest Service and timber companies out on it,” he said.
‘These forests belong to all of us’
While the Timber Wars grabbed a lot of headlines for the conflicts in the forests of the West Coast — and especially Oregon — Idaho experienced the era of unrest in different ways.
For one thing, Sowards traced the debate back to the very essence of the “forest reserve” policy of the early 20th century, as Idaho politicians — often on behalf of the country as a whole — made it their job to parse through just what it meant to manage public lands.
A case in point was the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation process kicked off by the Wilderness Act of 1964. In essence, RARE required the Forest Service and other land management agencies to survey roadless areas within a period of 10 years in order to formulate recommendations for formal wilderness designation.
That should have happened, but as Sowards said, “The Forest Service did a crappy job.”
Conservation groups used the court sys tem to force a reformation of the process, demanding more rigorous study and result ing in RARE II, around which Idaho U.S. Sen. Jim MClure, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resourc es, launched a series of hearings throughout the state in 1983, including in Boise, Idaho Falls and Pocatello in the south and Lewis ton and Coeur d’Alene in the north.
He was looking for input on recommen dations for wilderness areas in Idaho, with two terms at the center of the debate: “hard release” and “soft release.”
A strong supporter of industry, Repub lican McClure became a lobbyist and con sultant for mining interests after declining to run for reelection in 1990, after which he was replaced by Sens. Larry Craig and Jim Risch. He favored “hard release,” meaning that some places would be declared wilder ness and therefore protected, but, “There will be nothing else after this,” Sowards said. “Never again will that be something in Idaho that people will have to consider.”
On the other side were advocates of “soft release,” which meant some areas could be set aside as wilderness, with the option to add others in the future.
However, McClure’s fact-finding tour came at a time of particular insecurity for the timber industry — with a “hard release” policy he and lumber executives were seeking long-term stability. It’s hard to plan future timber harvests on public lands if those lands might one day wind up being carved out for wilderness protection.
“He loses in that case,” Sowards said, adding that one of the results is in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness designation in 1984.
“Everyone wants to have some certainty
looking ahead,” he said. “Activists don’t necessarily agree, but the politicians that are friendly to the timber industry want some of the certainty around it.”
Lacking that certainty, and with “soft release” the policy going forward, timber companies and the communities that relied on lumbering felt threatened.
That added additional fuel to the con flicts that developed throughout the later 1980s and 1990s, up to the Northwest For est Act, and helps explain some of the inten sity of feeling on behalf of timber towns.
“Here’s the thing about people in the timber industry: They live near these areas that they harvest. They don’t have any place to cut-and-run anymore — that’s all over with. That was over with way before World War II,” O’Laughlin said.
“A century ago that was the criticism of the timber industry … [But] the people that work in the woods, they don’t want to despoil the same place that they work, which is the same place that they recreate,” he added. “They don’t want to destroy the wildlife habitat, they want to go out there and hunt birds, and hunt elk and hunt deer. They want to go out there and fish in clean water, not dirty water.”
According to O’Laughlin, that simulta neously complicates and simplifies the story of the Timber Wars and how it moved from conflict to collaboration: These were and re
main lands on which everyone relied, whether for their livelihood, recreation or (in a basic ecological sense) their survival. He didn’t see ideology at play as much as pragmatism.
“They want things from the forest. And the harvesting of timber removes some of the things that the timber adversaries want. … They think that, ‘We like the big trees, we like the wildlife habitat, and if you’re going to go out there and make stumps, we’re going to fight you.’ And that’s exactly what happened. They don’t like stumps on their land, and they view it as their land,” he said.
However, O’Laughlin added, the fact remains that, “These forests belong to all of us. The ownership is actually Congress and then Congress delegates the management authority to whoever they see fit.”
The collaborative spirit may have seemed distant in the 1990s — and it was, with un rest in the forests throughout the West — but the notion of collective ownership and how it should be structured got new life toward the end of the 20th century. But it wasn’t easy, and remains uneasy to this day.
This article is the conclusion of the second part of a series supported by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council and sponsored by Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. Previous installments were published in February and the June 2 edition of the Reader. For more information on this series, which will conclude in the fall, visit scotchmanpeaks.org.
Conservation: From the Timber Wars to collaboration
What is ‘winning’ in the woods? — Part IBy Zach Hagadone Special to the Reader
This article is Part 1 of the conclusion to a series of articles supported by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council and sponsored by Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. Previous installments were published in the Feb. 2, Feb. 9, June 2 and June 9 editions of the Reader. For more information on this series, which will end in the Thursday, Oct. 27 edition of the Reader, visit scotchmanpeaks.org.
It is tempting to think of the so-called Timber Wars as a relic of the past. The period of dramatic unrest in the 1980s and ’90s, with its protests and counter protests, some more violent than others throughout the Northwest and California, does seem distant. But as recently as September 2017, longtime Idaho columnist and political observer Marty Trillhasse had occasion to write a piece in the Lewiston Tribune under the headline: “Are we seeing an end to Idaho’s ‘forest wars’?”
Noting that the origin of the term “forest wars” lay with late-Boise State University Western policy expert and Professor John Freemuth, Trillhaase wrote, “Certitude hardened into paralysis as both resource industry and conservationists pursued the perfect to the detriment of the good: Timber jobs disappeared while overgrown forests risked catastrophic wildfires.”
Still, in 2017, “both sides” were “finding their way back toward consensus,” he wrote, citing a state-level management plan for 9.3 million roadless forest acres, the creation of wilderness areas in the Boul der-White Clouds and Owyhee Canyon lands, and “broad-based collaboratives to forge ahead on forest health, habitat improvement and logging.”
That collaborative approach is wholly distinct from the hodgepodge of policies that animated public land policies in the previous century and more, and is indic ative of the broader sweep of how both institutional stakeholders and the public, in its understanding of how decisions are made regarding those landscapes, have shifted from all-out Timber Wars to areas of agreement and conservation gain.
Projects to sell and salvage timber in the Nez Perce-Clearwater, Panhandle, Pay ette and Boise National Forests would be fast-tracked, creating more than 1,000 jobs,
generating almost 66 million board feet and creating $68.5 million in wages.
Trillhasse wrote that this “welcome news” brought together the administration of then-Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and the U.S. Forest Service, and not much “squawking from conservationists, either.” All the projects had passed federal envi ronmental review. Because they would be administered by the Idaho Department of Lands under the “Good Neighbor Authori ty” policy — giving the state power to man age federal lands — there would be even greater transparency, access to state public records being less cumbersome than going through the Freedom of Information Act.
It’s arguably more of a “win” for timber than conservation, but does meet many of the goals of collaboration, in that it seeks to serve both the increased scale of harvesting while still maintaining environmental protections.
“[Y]ou can still have a profitable timber sale while protecting some of those sensi tive resources,” Trillhaase quoted Jonathan Oppenheimer, of the Idaho Conservation League, from an Associated Press article.
“Too good to be true?” Trillhaase wrote. “Maybe.”
It was five years ago that Trillhaase wondered whether the “forest wars” might be ending, and more than 20 years after what are more popularly referred to as the “Timber Wars” were a hot-button issue occupying activists, industry leaders, politicians, journalists and timber families throughout the West.
The fact that such a headline could exist in 2017 speaks to the deep roots of the con flict and the long road — especially through roadless areas — by which it has been de fined. To get to 2017 and beyond, however, it’s important to return to the flashpoint era in greater detail and look at the clash during its height in the last two decades of the 20th century, then work forward to an era of “collaboration” as it has and is being built step by (often wary) step.
‘A critical moment’
The Deseret News in Salt Lake City car ried a piece Sept. 6, 1993, from the Associ ated Press headlined “Radical Group Mak ing Enemies as it Battles Logging in Idaho,” focused on environmental group Earth First! and its efforts to stave off the Forest Service’s plans for a logging operation “in a huge roadless area in central Idaho.”
Despite its seeming quotidian headline, that AP article could be seen as marking
the beginning of a crescendo to the Timber Wars in Idaho, and a hinge on which the interrelated issues of timber harvesting and conservation moved from conflict to collaboration.
Referring to unrest in the Cove-Mallard area east of Lewiston, described in the article as “one of the largest roadless areas in the contiguous 48 states,” the AP reported that as many as 145 miles of logging roads were planned in the Nez Perce National Forest, providing access to “carve out scores of clearcuts totaling more than 6,000 acres.”
Earth First! carried out a sustained op position, including tactics seen elsewhere in Oregon, Washington and California, with its members erecting barriers, tree sitting, par ticipating in sit-ins, chaining themselves to vehicles and locking themselves to concrete blocks buried in the ground.
At risk was not only the immediate Cove-Mallard area, but what Earth First! said was a critical wildlife corridor linking the Frank Church River of No Return, Gos pel Hump and Selway-Bitterroot wilder nesses, which together protected a total of 4.3 million acres.
“I think it was a critical moment in critiquing what was happening on public lands and litigation was a relatively new tool, and it had been used in the past. It was being used more,” said Gary Macfarlane, who retired in April 2022 as Ecosystem Defense director for Friends of the Clearwa ter, which he served for more than 20 years, first as a volunteer in Moscow, then board member, then full-time employee helming everything from policy analysis to filing ap peals to bringing litigation related to public land issues in the Clearwater Basin.
Macfarlane spent more than 30 years as an environmental activist — including at Cove-Mallard — and received the Alliance for the Wild Rockies Conservation Award in 1997. Upon his retirement, the Tribune added another descriptor: “feisty,” noting that because of the group’s opposi tion to “collaboration” as a model for public land management, it has been considered “something of a pariah at times.”
He described the so-called Timber Wars “as a last gasp, trying to save the bits that were left with varying success.”
“I think it’s more of a blip. I don’t see it as a high point in forest protection, though some people might, I really see the high point happening prior to that — well prior to that — though things have been downhill since then,” he added, tracing the “down
went on in Oregon and Washington,” he said.
The vigor of the Cove-Mallard protests were significant in their occurrence and aims but, also, as the AP noted, because they provided “another indication that the timber wars are moving east.”
That had happened, O’Laughlin said, because of reduced timber harvesting in the federal forests of spotted owl country on the West Coast in the 1980s and early 1990s, which pushed demand eastward across the Cascade Crest. The Northwest Forest Plan, fronted by then-President Bill Clinton in 1994, as well as its localized offshoot plans were supposed to address these new stresses on inland forests and — hopefully — halt or at least lessen the spread of the “Timber Wars.”
“There might be a few exceptions, but things aren’t better for most species,” Mac farlane said, pointing out that despite all the furor of the “Timber Wars” period, timber production reached a peak in the mid-1980s of 13 billion board feet, compared to the 1 billion board feet produced in the pre-war years. More on that later.
On the Good Neighbor Authority and “collaboration” writ large, he called it “an intellectual form of capitulation,” where by conservation groups jettisoned their political capital for a seat at the bargaining table with whom he called “elites” on the conservation, industry and governmental policy-setting sides. In the Nez Perce-Clear water area — the very heart of Idaho’s most vigorous protests — he said collaboration accomplished one thing: “Greatly increas ing the logging levels.”
Macfarlane’s assessment of collabora tion notwithstanding, the Good Neighbor Authority, in particular, has been support ed by conservation groups at least in part because it offers them the opportunity to assure the process of environmental review — including on lands adjacent to Forest Service holdings — is implemented in a reasonable manner.
And the degree to which lawsuits build political capital are up for debate. Legal action may often be useful in defending against egregious actions on the land, but not always best suited to influencing local, state and congressional policymakers. That may well be the difference between politics
“You don’t have a level table or play ing field, and even the professionals in the environmental movement — and I’ve been one for many years — it’s truly not level. To participate you sort of give up whatev er leverage you have through the judicial review process,” he said, further describing collaboration as a methodology that is, at base, “very anti-democratic.”
It depends on who you ask.
Shawn Keough came to the Sandpoint area in 1979 — about a year out of high school. In 1988, she began what would become a 12-year period working with the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce. She also became involved with the timber in dustry, and today serves as executive director of the Associated Logging Contractors, and, in 1996, launched her political career serving in the Idaho Senate from District 1, which covers Bonner and Boundary counties.
She held that position for 22 years, leaving office in 2018 as the longest-serv ing female senator in Idaho history. Today, she serves on the Idaho State Board of Education.
So it is that Keough’s experience unites economic development, the timber industry and the legislative process in ways that give her a unique perspective on what we call the “Timber Wars,” and how the climate surrounding public land management has evolved from those conflict-centric years to a greater emphasis on collaboration.
“I came into those [issues] in the very late ’80s and through the ’90s, up to where we are today,” she said. “‘My side,’ I guess, feels pretty strongly that the National Forest system was set up as a multiple use system, which has multiple uses including timber harvesting to provide a growing nation the materials needed to grow.”
Meanwhile, “another side,” she added, “in the extreme had and continues to have a no-cut policy, and it just puts people at loggerheads — no pun intended — and so there was a struggle and a debate, and that debate continues today.”
Looking back on those most divisive years of the 1990s, Keough remembered that what she described as “radical environ mental activity” did occur in the northern counties — mostly in the form of vandalism of logging equipment — but nothing like what was happening in the Clearwater-Nez Perce area. She chalked that up to commu nities in Bonner and Boundary counties being “used to seeing clear cuts … used to seeing logging, and that was just part of the landscape, so to speak, and there was an understanding among folks who lived here that logging happens.”
The reaction to those methods of timber harvesting was different in states to the west of Idaho, where large private timber companies like Weyerhaeuser and others engaged in “tree farming” — clear-cutting huge swaths of timberland and replanting it in a system analogous to crop rotation. It’s a practice that continues today.
“They clear cut everything and replant, and the National Forest System at the time was also doing clear cuts. And when you drive up and down I-5 and see clear cut after clear cut, or even I-90, I think those timber practices, sort of as a culture, really lit the fire or was the first volley in the Tim ber Wars because folks got really upset,” Keough said.
“If you don’t know what’s going on, logging is ugly, and then when it’s a clear cut, people really take offense,” she added. “The general public doesn’t like clear cuts, and even when you explain the potential positives of them, they don’t like them.
And when buffer strips started to be left along highways, then the activation was, ‘Well now you’re just trying to hide the bad practice.’ … I think that really galvanized the environmental movement. …
“When we started to see that really for est management was happening by judges in courtrooms and work wasn’t getting done because the Forest Service couldn’t do the paperwork absolutely correctly, that’s when I think the efforts toward collaboration started happening.”
‘People here are madder than hell’
While protests in the forests and fights in the courtroom certainly occurred in the Gem State — and continue today — the vit riol often went in different directions from other timber states, underscoring just how complex it would be to find a path from conflict to collaboration.
O’Laughlin said that had much to do with the size of the industry and magnitude of its harvests in Idaho.
“In Oregon, 35,000 people lost their jobs as a result of the spotted owl, and 60% of those people left the state,” he said. “We had similar reductions in Idaho, but not to the same scale because timber harvesting wasn’t to the same scale. We didn’t have as many mills.”
People in North Idaho felt what they
perceived as a downturn in the timber in dustry during the 1980s and ’90s, however, and often placed the blame on “environ mentalists” as well as the Clinton adminis tration for mill closures and layoffs.
In the AP’s Sept. 1993 reporting on Cove-Mallard, residents were quoted as saying the efforts of Earth First! to stop log ging in the Nez Perce-Clearwater were do ing more harm than good. One Dixie, Idaho area hunting outfitter told the AP that while he was against the timber sales — fearing harvests would scare off clients and wildlife alike, driving him out of business — “Peo ple here are madder than hell at Earth First! … The tactics they’re using, destruction of other people’s equipment, nobody agrees with that at all.”
Environmental policies and lawsuits grinding timber operations to a standstill were decried as handicapping the industry, while Clinton era trade policies — particu larly the North American Free Trade Agree ment, enacted in 1994 — were accused of exposing domestic lumber producers to artificially lower-cost product from Canada, which unfairly undercut their prices.
Helen Chenoweth-Hage, who served in the U.S. House from the Idaho First Con gressional District from 1995 to 2001, made pushing back against both the environmen tal and trade policies of the Clinton admin istration one of her signature issues.
In her first year in office alone, Che noweth-Hage cosponsored the NAFTA Withdrawal Act, the NAFTA Accountability Act and the Emergency Lumber Act — all intended in one way or another to slow or stop subsidized commodities from coming into the U.S. from Canada and Mexico. She again cosponsored the NAFTA Accountabili ty Act in 1997 and put her name to other bills intended to pull the country out of interna tional trade and monetary organizations.
Perhaps the arch-conservative Che noweth-Hage’s most famous political gesture was denying the endangered status of Snake River sockeye salmon — despite only eight of the fish returning to Redfish Lake in 1994. She attended so-called “endangered salmon bakes” in Stanley, not far from Redfish Lake
— at which salmon was served from coastal waters. When asked why she didn’t believe the Snake River sockeye could be endan gered, she responded, “How can I, when you go in and you can buy a can of salmon off the shelf in Albertsons?” according to an AP article reprinted Aug. 28, 1994, in the Lewiston Tribune.
That remark prompted conservation proponents, who were at that time pushing for policies to protect the salmon — and therefore affecting the amount and location of timber that could be harvested along certain Idaho rivers — to devise the slogan: “Can Helen, not salmon.”
Despite the rhetoric coming from poli ticians like Chenoweth-Hage, compelling analysis from University of Idaho Sociolo gy Professor Ryanne Pilgeram, cited in her 2022 book Pushed Out: Contested Devel opment and Rural Gentrification in the U.S. West, showed that while the number of mills in North Idaho fell from 133 in 1979 to 38 by 2006, “the amount of lumber produced in North Idaho actually increased in nearly every reported period between 1979 and 2006, from 930,446 board feet in 1979 to 1,213,987 in 2006.”
It wasn’t “environmentalists” or Clinton pushing mills out of business and workers out of their jobs, it was “the closure of small mills and the growth of much larger ones that simply needed fewer people to do the same work because of the rapid mechaniza tion of the industry,” Pilgeram wrote.
Keying into other research, Pilgeram added that while mill employment fell 2% per year during the 1980s, production rose by the same percentage. Though there were fewer workers in the mills, their labor productivity rose by 3.1% per year between 1975 and 1996.
Pilgeram wrote that the listing of the spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act in 1990 and wilderness protections at the time “took much of the blame.”
“While it is absolutely true that the sup ply of timber from federal lands was dra matically limited by [wilderness] policies ... some of the loss of timber from federal land was made up for by increased logging on
private lands and state lands,” she wrote.
Ultimately, researchers have found that those policies accounted for fewer than 5% of decline in timber industry employment during the period. The remainder can be mostly attributed to consolidation, auto mation and, in some cases, large lumber producers relocating their operations to the U.S. South.
“You do have mills closing, there’s no denying that, but I don’t think it’s the Endangered Species Act or a bunch of Earth First! radicals that are probably causing these things, it’s more complicated econom ic stuff,” said University of Idaho Professor Adam Sowards, an environmental historian and professor who serves as director of the Pacific Northwest Studies Program at the University of Idaho, adding that there was a willful desire to ignore the technological changes occurring in the mills in the ’80s and ’90s, and a decided preference to see “environmentalists” as enemies.
“The political polarization is so severe, and its roots are deep. I see it start bubbling forth in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and just hardening even more in the ’90s and harden ing even more in the last decade,” he added.
In spite of that politicization, with its dense matrix of enemies, allies and talking points, there was yet collaboration on the horizon, as the various “sides” began to realize that no one wins in a trench war. Those wins started to materialize as the conflicts of the 1980s and ’90s faded and a new model of decision making took hold in the first decades of the 21st century.
This is Part 1 of a two-part article. For more information on this series, which will conclude in the Thursday, Oct. 27 edition of the Sandpoint Reader, visit scotchmanpeaks. org. To find previous installments, visit sandpointreader.com.
Conservation: From the Timber Wars to collaboration
What is ‘winning’ in the woods? — Part IIBy Zach Hagadone Reader Staff
This article is Part 2 of the conclusion to a series of articles supported by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council and sponsored by Friends of Scotch man Peaks Wilderness. Previous installments were published in the Feb. 2, Feb. 9, June 2, June 9 and Oct. 20 editions of the Reader. For more information on this series visit scotchmanpeaks. org. To read the entire series, visit sandpointreader.com and click on “Special Reports” on the left side of the homepage.
‘The Quincy Library Group got it all started’
Away from the headline-grab bing activist protests and court battles, resentment on the part of timber communities and politi cal bluster of politicians, some things were quietly happening in the mid- to late-1990s that would help clear the way for greater collaboration.
In the neutral space of the public library of Quincy, Calif., an initially small number of timber industry representatives, government officials and conser vationists came together trying to find a path forward to allow timber harvests within spotted owl territory, while also putting in place policies and practices to protect or at least mitigate impacts to the habitat.
For Alan Harper, director of Forest Operations for the Idaho Forest Group, it was the aptly named Quincy Library Group that really kicked off the era of growing collaboration. And he would know — he was one of its original participants.
“I think the Quincy Library Group got it all started,” he said. “It was kind of a big thing.
Before that you would never have gotten people from conser vation and industry in one room together.”
Harper earned his bachelor’s degree in forest management from Humboldt State Univer sity in 1985 and went on to work laying out timber sales in northeastern California and overseeing the logging crews contracted to work on them. He went into business for himself writing forest management plans and contract logging in 1989. That put him in the perfect time and place to become involved in the Quincy Library Group.
“I can remember the bumper stickers on all the loggers’ trucks that said, ‘Due to the shortage of paper you can wipe your butt with a spotted owl,’” he said. “It was quagmired down to whatev er the conservation groups want ed, they weren’t succeeding; the timber people weren’t getting what they needed to keep people employed and keep communities profitable.”
After years of deliberation, the collaborative crafted the Quincy
Library Group Forest Recovery and Economic Stability Act of 1997, which sought to establish a five-year program to protect spotted owl and riparian areas, as well as thin 40,000 to 60,000 acres per year in three California national forests to protect against fire. Critically, the group’s efforts would have removed 494,000 roadless acres from future road construction or logging.
Though the Act made it through the House, it died in the Senate. However, the legislation broke ground for its time — if not by force of law, then in terms of public lands politics.
In its Sept. 29, 1997 edition, High Country News carried a 5,626-word feature article on the QLG’s efforts under the head line, “The timber wars evolve into a divisive attempt at peace.” In that story, then-HCN Publish er Ed Marston neatly summa rized the snarled conflict:
“If the timber struggle had been a declared war, industry would have sued for peace. But there was no one to surrender to. The timber wars are dispersed,
New tree growth out of an old stump. Courtesy photo.
without fixed goals. The industry wants all the forests it can get, and the environmentalists want all the forest protection they can get,” he wrote.
Harper said the QLG’s great est significance was in opening channels of dialogue that could cut through the rigidity of the various parties in the conflict.
“I don’t know if we actu ally resolved anything, but we started talking to each other,” he said. “I do know that for the couple of years that I was attending those meetings, at least we were talking civilly to each other, and I don’t think that there was any collabora tive stuff taking place up in the Northwest prior to that.”
Though the Quincy Library Group represented a flash of col laboration, the conflict still had a ways to go before any attempt at peace — whether “divisive” or not — could succeed. Only two years after the introduction of the QLG’s Act, Seattle District Court Judge William Dwyer
ruled in 1999 that the U.S. For est Service and Bureau of Land Management hadn’t held up their part of the Clinton-brokered bargain that required sweep ing wildlife surveys on federal forests before granting logging permits in the old-growth forests of Washington, Oregon and northwest California.
For many, it looked like a step toward Dwyer’s previous ruling in 1991 that put a stop to any and all logging on 25 mil lion acres of spotted owl habitat within federal jurisdiction.
In an August 1999 front-page article, The New York Times reported that Dwyer’s decision indicated “the region’s timber wars are flaring up again.”
By the turn of the 21st century, few in industry, gov ernment or conservation were interested in seeing the region’s timber wars flare up again. Both industry and government feared continuing courtroom battles. Meanwhile, as Idaho Conservation League North Idaho Director Brad Smith said, conservation groups had “spent their political capital fighting the Timber Wars.”
The years of conflict — and the sense of weariness with it — came through in a Dec. 21, 1999 article from the Associated Press, reprinted in the Bonner County Daily Bee, on the decision by Dwyer to approve a settlement in the lawsuit brought by envi ronmental groups earlier in the year “that halted enough logging to build a small city — but the larger fight is far from over.”
The AP reported that environ mentalists promised to “aggres sively push the Clinton admin istration to protect more ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest,”
while, “Timber industry officials, who are skeptical the settlement solves anything, say they will try to make sure the stalled sales are released sometime next year.”
At the same time, the Clinton White House “acknowledged that timber battles will continue but said the approval … [by Dwyer] was a victory for the Northwest Forest Plan.”
Ultimately, in his six-page opinion, Dwyer dismissed the suit — brought by 13 environ mental groups — finding that “each side made ‘substantial concessions’ in the deal.”
Those “substantial conces sions” included the requirement of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to study about 80 rare species potentially affected by logging on public lands, though removed nine species from the list because they were “more common than previously thought”
What’s more, the agencies were allowed to suspend survey ing for 13 more “hard-to-find species if they are not discovered after one year.”
These were the “slugs and bugs” to which University of Idaho Professor Emeritus Jay O’Laughlin referred when he described the species monitoring program that came out of the Northwest Forest Plan, and the protection of which animated much of the conflict surround ing what came popularly to be known as the Timber Wars.
As with many compromises, no party was entirely happy with the outcome. The AP article stated that environmental groups were displeased with the settlement and an attendant amendment to the Northwest Forest Plan, which they said would open the way for the cutting of 1.1 million acres of old-growth tree stands.
“That’s unacceptable to us,” the AP quoted Oregon Natural Resources representative Doug Heiken, whose group prompted the suit.
“It was very disappointing,” the AP quoted Northwest For estry Association President Jim Geisinger, doubting that even with the “major concessions” timber sales would be released
by the fall of 2000, noting that the feds had not succeeded in completing their surveys during the previous five years.
“It’s a defeat for the North west Forest Plan — it’s certainly a defeat for people who were counting on these timber sales,” he added.
In summary, the AP wrote that the Northwest Forest Plan intended “to settle the timber wars over the threatened spotted owl, broadly dictates the level of logging and other activities on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land in west ern Washington, western Oregon and northern California.
“The plan is supposed to en sure environmental protections in the region while allowing a minimal level of logging.”
Yet, the AP reported, “Dwyer handed a major defeat to the timber industry officials, who had intervened in the lawsuit and had asked the judge to reject the settlement. The judge turned back arguments that the settle ment will hurt the industry and will not free up any sales.
“Dwyer also rejected industry officials’ claims that they were locked out of settlement talks, saying instead they were ‘suffi ciently included.’”
As the hot phase of the Tim ber Wars moved from protests in the woods to the cold phase of the courtroom, many of the players felt the conflict had to give way.
“Both sides recognized and realized that neither were getting anywhere, and so I think a leg acy is the recognition that with the right people in the room who are willing to put everything on the table and civilly discuss what the needs on the landscape
are and try to figure out a way forward, that we have some wins,” said Shawn Keough, who has spent decades in the timber industry — today serving as executive director of the Associ ated Logging Contractors — and began a 20-year stint as Idaho Legislative District 1 senator in 1996, retiring in 2016 as the longest-serving female senator in Idaho history.
Asked to identify a “mo ment” of collaboration amid the so-called “Timber Wars,” Ke ough said, “it was right around the early 2000s,” though, “I think originally it was very skeptically greeted by both sides as just a ploy.”
She added: “At the time I de scribed collaboration as getting people together into the room and beating them down — and that’s not obviously physically — until they wanted to get out of the room so badly they found something they could agree on. Because it was pretty painful to bring divergent interests to the table and try to facilitate through that, moderate that, and try to figure out if there’s any common ground at all. Those are pretty painful discussions to have. Not
everybody bought in and not everybody buys in today.”
‘Turning point’ Idaho Conservation League pre-dated the “Timber Wars” proper, having been founded as a 501(c)(3) in 1973 and serving as a key player in the establishment of the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. During the 1980s, ICL was involved in passage of the Idaho Clean Lakes and Water Quality Act and had a hand in the Idaho Forest Practices Act in the ’90s, which gave the organi zation a seat at the table during the era of the “Timber Wars.”
“I think all sides realized [that conflict] wasn’t a sustain able business model for anyone, and they realized that they were more likely to achieve their
goals by working together,” said Brad Smith, who has worked 16 years with the ICL.
In the first decade of the 2000s, ICL participated in collaborative efforts to pass the Idaho Roadless Rule in 2008 and the Owyhee Canyonlands Wil derness Bill in 2009 — the latter which resulted in the Owyhees Public Management Act, setting aside about 500,000 acres of wilderness in southwest Idaho.
Smith called the Owyhee Initiative a “turning point” for collaboration in Idaho.
Though it had more to do with cattle grazing and mining than timber, “It was a collabora tive model exported to the rest of the state,” he said. “Today we’re seeing collaboration used as a tool for many types of environ mental issues.”
Roughly contemporaneous with the Owyhee Initiative, the Idaho Roadless Rule in 2008 helped clear the way for many of the collaborations to follow. The Idaho-specific legislation came about with the support of then-President George W. Bush, then-Gov. Otter, Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch, ICL, Trout Unlimited and others, and — according to the U.S. Forest Service — established five “management themes” for 9 million acres of designat ed roadless areas in the state,
described as “Wild Land Recreation; Primitive; Special Areas of Historic and Tribal Significance; Backcountry/Resto ration; and General Forest, Rangeland and Grassland.”
Jonathan Oppenheimer, director of external relations for the Idaho Conserva tion League in Boise, said the Roadless Rule “provide[ed] the necessary space to have discussions about timber with out a continuing battle over whether and how to develop the pristine undeveloped forests that make up about 50% of Idaho’s National Forest lands. …
“By setting aside the roadless issue — for the most part — it helped foster collaborative efforts and allow the space for improved dialogue,” he added.
It was also during that period from 2008-2009 that Alan Harper got involved with the Panhandle Forest Collaborative, which continues to bring together con servation groups, members of the timber industry and government officials to manage forestlands in North Idaho.
Harper came to the Gem State from California in 2000, working as resource manager for Riley Creek Lumber. He later joined Idaho Forest Group, which represents the second-largest purchaser of federal timber in the United States.
The Panhandle Forest Collaborative got going with conversations between the Idaho Conservation League and IFG, after a similar effort fell apart a few years earlier amid lawsuits filed by some of the members — despite assurances that any potential legal action would first be discussed by the group.
That second attempt included IFG, ICL, Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilder ness and the Lands Council, and — most critical to its success — enjoyed a higher level of trust.
“The good thing was we all knew each other from other collaboratives we’d tried before. At that point, we were all friends,” Harper said. “We knew we would not always agree, but I know that they would never back-stab me and they would listen.”
Among the key collaboration points, according to Harper, were industry’s de sire to access federal and state timber, and conservation groups’ interest in getting certain areas protected in perpetuity.
“What really brought those groups to the table was they knew they’re never going to get any wilderness designated in North Idaho without the support of timber,” he said.
On the other hand, for timber sales to go ahead — much less be profitable — the industry learned that it was imperative
to “try to find an answer before you had to sue,” Harper added. “That was why we thought, ‘We have to get back into this.’”
‘To find a path forward’
It’s human nature to seek simplicity. We like our narratives tidy — especially when they inform a historical understand ing of the present. The story of “conser vation: from the Timber Wars to collab oration” is not clear cut. It is composed of clashes and fixes, which create other conflicts that require new fixes and open further fronts of potential conflict. We are not yet fully to a place where collabora tion solves all problems, and not everyone buys into the process. The term itself is loaded, according to activists — retired or not — like Gary Macfarlane, who spent 30 years fighting to protect sensitive land scapes from exploitation. Some still fight the results of collaborative efforts.
That said, the conversations surround ing public land management are more nu anced, deliberative and less litigious than they have been in recent history. With collaboration there is stronger and more widespread support for both conservation and responsible timber projects and, for whatever criticisms may be leveled at it, the process is seen by those engaged with it as far more preferable than gridlock.
One telling example: the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership, which is de scribed as “a network of collaboration,” focused on encouraging active manage ment of public forests to support both the health of those landscapes and the industry that relies on them. And its mem bership underscores the degree to which formerly divergent groups have come together: Trout Unlimited, Idaho Conser vation League, Riley Stegner and Asso ciates, the Nature Conservancy in Idaho and Society of American Foresters.
Does that mean they’re doing a good job on the ground? Again, that depends on who you ask.
For Keough, it’s an ongoing evolu
A forest collaboration group in action. This meeting of the Panhandle Collaborative Group took place in 2016. Courtesy photo.
tion of interest groups and their relative ability to see across immediate aims for a perceived long-term benefit.
“It’s trying to figure out how to find common ground and accomplish work that both sides could identify as needed. It was a growing process and quite a bit of angst between then and where we are today,” she said. “And to be fair, we’re still fighting lawsuits by environmental groups. And every once in a while the timber folks throw in a lawsuit of their own, to be completely honest. … We are seeing work done and I think that’s a good legacy that’s come from that. We still have, from my perspective, envi ronmental folks who just do not want to see one tree cut ever and let nature take its course. And we’re still seeing lawsuits on i’s dotted and t’s crossed and that’s discomforting, especially from my perspective obviously. … It’s a constant evolution of discussion and a constant changing of our community here.”
Jay O’Laughlin, the professor emeri tus of forestry at the University of Idaho, describes the past 30 to 40 years since the “Timber Wars” as arriving finally at “an uneasy peace.”
“And that is through public involve ment,” he said. “To be meaningful, public involvement [is] anybody who wants to have something to say about how these forests should be managed is to be includ ed in the process, so as a result there’s been a great scratching of heads on, ‘Well, how do we do that?’ and the peace that has come about has been through people sitting down and talking to each other about how these forests that we all love but for different reasons, how they should be managed.”
Macfarlane is far less sanguine.
“A lot of things that conservationists have been saying for a long time are coming true,” charting the conservation movement’s trajectory as one of increas ing professionalization that has turned “collaboration” into “Orwellian double speak” that serves industry far more than its purported conserva tion aims.
“It was very grass roots-y back then,” he said of Cove-Mallard, where the most vigor ous clashes in Idaho’s front of the Timber Wars took place. “I think it was in the ’80s when the profession alism increased quite a bit, though it existed prior to that.”
Rather, Macfarlane said “elites define the terms of debate” surrounding public lands management today, making neces sary processes like environmental reviews “pro forma” in the decision-making process.
“De facto decisions are made in that collaborative process, and then the public has their chance [to comment] and it’s a pro forma exercise,” he said. “That’s to me what makes it objectionable. It’s very anti-democratic and that’s why I call it a form of neoliberalism.”
Putting a final peg on it, Macfarlane said, “I’m not being optimistic here; we’re in a bad situation, as things are.”
Adam Sowards, an environmental historian and director of the Pacific Northwest Studies Program at the Uni versity of Idaho, looks at the state of po litical play from the 1980s to the present and also feels less than optimistic about how partisanship has come to bear on public lands, and what it means for the notion of “collaboration” as an engine of “conservation.”
Casting back to Idaho U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, he made the connection between her rhetoric merging public lands policy with boogeymen like clandestine federal “black helicopters” patrolling the countryside and the old John Birch Society hobbyhorse of the United Nations grabbing up U.S. cit izens’ property as “foreshadowing of what was to come.”
Specifically, incidents like the Bun dy family-led Bunkerville and Malheur standoffs — in Nevada in 2014 and eastern Oregon in 2016, respectively — illustrate the virulence with which some Westerners push back against federal ownership and management of public lands, much prefer ring conflict to collaboration.
“That sort of conspiracy theory think ing and all of these things coming togeth er — public lands, the militia having to fight against the federal government — all of this stuff is connected,” Sowards said.
And to disabuse anyone of the notion that this is “history,” Ammon Bundy — who played a leading role in both armed incidents — unsuccess fully mounted an inde pendent run for Idaho governor in the Nov. 8, 2022 midterm election, and Scott Herndon, who was elected to the Idaho Senate from Legislative District 1 in the same election, has made selling off public lands to private interests a central plank in his platform.
Sowards rooted much of the present ultra-conservative ideology surrounding public lands — namely that they should be “returned” via a dubious claim of own ership to individual states — as a twisting of the upswell of rights claims fronted by historically marginalized groups in the 1960s and ’70s into the preeminence of property, whether public or private.
“That rights language then gets co-opt ed in the ’80s and ’90s, especially around property rights, and the way jurisprudence fell toward rights rather than the public good shaped how the New Right in the Reagan years and after articulated some of its claims,” he said. “In any discussion of property rights [today] you would recognize that.”
Even Harper, who considers himself “a very right-leaning person” said “we’re as extreme on two ends of the stick as we’ve ever been” and dismissed the push to privatize public land — which would be an end to collaboration altogether — as the result of a small-yet-loud group of individuals being “whipped into a frenzy by our fine politicians. I don’t think that they really think about the big picture.”
“I can definitely be in the middle on conservation, because we need to have a balance, which is why I’ve always supported the collaborative process,” he added, noting that while he’s discouraged to see a recent uptick in litigation against timber sales — frequently initiated by groups from out of the area and unin volved in local collaboratives — he’s en couraged to see timber companies doing things like putting acreage into conserva tion easements.
“That land is going to be growing trees forever — wildlife, timber and water, forever,” he said. “You look at that and I think the industry has moved a long way
toward thinking about conservation.”
That’s also apparent in Harper’s own career trajectory — starting out in the timber industry 35 years ago, participat ing in the Quincy Library Group, helping form the Panhandle Forest Collaborative and, now, serving on the board of the Idaho Conservation League.
“That blows a lot of people’s minds,” he said. “To do that [be a part of the second-biggest buyer of federal timber in the country] and also be able to get along with the staff and the board of a conserva tion group, I think, speaks a lot to where we’ve come.”
And looking back to the “cut-andrun” days of the early 20th century, to the burgeoning conservation and wilder ness ethos of the late-1920s, 1930s and early-’40s, to the “run-to-cut” boom times of the post-World War II era to the bitter conflicts of the Timber Wars period of the 1980s and ’90s, it is clear that thinking about how — and even whether — to manage public lands has evolved in dramatic ways. As has the notion of
“Collaboration is not the goal. It is a tool, and it only works as a tool if you have all the nuts and bolts,” said Brad Smith, of the Idaho Conservation League.
Keough agreed, noting that the Timber Wars haven’t really ended, they’ve just shifted into other arenas, including rec reation, forest fuels reduction and others — all potential future battlelines in the ongoing and vitally important history of how Americans seek to steward their land.
Yet, she said, “Collaboration has become a great tool, and good people on all sides of the spectrum across Idaho — and across other places, as well — get around the proverbial table and look on the ground at specific projects and try to see if they can work through something. They recognize what the need might be and work to find a path forward.”
This is Part 2 of a two-part article. For more information on this series, visit scotchmanpeaks.org. To find previous installments, visit sandpointreader.com.
“Collaboration is not the goal. It is a tool, and it only works as a tool if you have all the nuts and bolts.”
— Brad Smith North Idaho Director, Idaho Conservation League