GOVERNOR BUTCH OTTER: IDAHO'S FORESTS...LEADING THE WAY FOR CHANGE
Change. In this exclusive and quite timely Evergreen interview, Governor Otter offers his thoughts on the significance of President-elect Trump's improbable victory and the millions of acres of federal forest and rangeland that is in environmental crisis. Somewhere between 80 and 90 million acres of federal forest land in the West are on the brink of ecological collapse. These lands are vital to our entire nation’s social, economic and environmental health. We have a lot of work to do and not much time left in which to get it done.
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“Whether you voted for Trump on someone else, the outcome underscores a deep-seated desire for immediate change. But I don’t think the media’s characterization of Trump is going to turn out to be very accurate. This is a guy with a long history of asking many questions all up and down the line before he decides what to do. If you saw his CBS Sixty Minutes interview, you learned that he even asks cement workers on his construction projects for their opinions. That’s not a “damn the torpedoes” approach. That’s collaboration on the part of a man who values the opinions of those who work around him.”
Idaho Governor, Clement Leroy “Butch” Otter Evergreen interview, November 5, 2016
Idaho’s Governor Otter believes the Trump victory was a big win for Idaho’s stakeholder collaboratives.
C.L. “Butch” Otter is midway through his third term as Idaho’s Governor. He also served as Idaho’s First District Congressman from 2001 to 2006. Before he made his congressional run, he served as Idaho’s Lt. Governor for four terms, a record in state history. Even earlier, he was Canyon County representative in the Idaho legislature from 1973 to 1976.
Otter worked for Idaho food processing giant, J.R. Simplot, for 30 years, and held a seat on the company’s board of directors at the time of his retirement in 1993. Over his years with the company, he was President of both Simplot’s cattle division and its international division.
In this exclusive and quite timely Evergreen interview, Governor Otter offers his thoughts on the significance of President-elect Trump’s improbable victory. The governor and his wife, Lori, served as honorary chairpersons for Trump’s Idaho campaign. Mr. Trump swept Idaho with 59 percent of the presidential vote.
EVERGREEN: Given President-elect Donald Trump’s astonishing come from behind win, how might his presidency impact federal forest management policies in the West?
GOV. OTTER: That’s the $64 question, isn’t it? I get bits and pieces, and that’s about all. But I take him at his word when he says he really wants to shake up the Washington establishment, and that includes the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture, as well as the EPA. We all know Mr. Trump mostly by reputation, and his reputation is that of a businessman who gives you lots of responsibility and expects you to perform. If you don’t live up to his expectations, you’re out. On reputation alone, I think we can expect major directional changes in the way the federal government interacts with the states, especially as it concerns natural resource management.
EVERGREEN: Our own thinking is that his election will provide a huge boost to stakeholder collaboration. Do you agree?
GOV. OTTER: I expect a huge boost. Idahoans have a long history of collaborative success. We relied on the folks who were part of that history in quickly selecting the 1.8 million acres in forest restoration projects that we all selected under the authority of the 2014 Farm Bill. Under the Trump Administration, I expect many more such opportunities will be headed our way.
EVERGREEN: Collaboration seems to be working in Idaho, but progress is slow and the physical scale of work is much too small given the urgency of the state’s forest health/wildfire crisis. From your perspective, what might be done to increase the pace and scale of restoration work?
GOV. OTTER: I understand the frustration our collaborators are experiencing, but I think help in on the way now. We all need to remember that Idaho was out of the chute earlier than many western states in terms of establishing our bona fides in Washington, D.C. We collaborated on our version of the Federal Roadless Rule, which was accepted by the Government. It was the same with wolves. Clearly, our ability to agree amongst ourselves on what was needed got everyone’s attention. We’ve established our credibility. It should be quickly recognized and embraced by the incoming Trump Administration.
EVERGREEN: It has been a year since we published “The Ticking Time Bomb in Idaho’s National Forests.” In our report, we said that mortality in Idaho’s national forests far outstrips growth. Has anything changed over the last year that gives reason for hope that this trend can be reversed?
GOV. OTTER: First, let me congratulate you on that report. I can’t tell you how many copies I’ve passed out over the last year, but it is a lot. I hand them out at every meeting of the Western Governors Association, and I’ll do it again next month when we meet in San Diego. It’s a very powerful document.
EVERGREEN: Well, thank you governor. We have been on the front lines in the West’s forest health debate for about 30 years. But we surely aren’t the first people to draw attention to the environmental crisis that has befallen Idaho’s national forests?
GOV. OTTER: I invited Marc Brinkmeyer [Idaho Forest Group board chairman] to describe the forest crisis you reference at a meeting of the Western Governors Association in Las Vegas a year or so ago. It was a very sobering presentation. Every landowner in every western state is at risk as a result of the wildfire crisis that is sweeping through our national forests.
EVERGREEN: We’re fascinated by the role WGA is playing in terms of raising congressional awareness of the problem and its array of solutions.
GOV. OTTER: The western governors are serious about getting this fixed as quickly as possible. The fact that we’re a bi-partisan organization gives us great strength and credibility inside the Beltway.
EVERGREEN: Good Neighbor Authority provides an opportunity for state forestry departments to help the U.S. Forest Service get more on the ground work done faster. What has been the Forest Service reaction, and how much help can Idaho’s Department of Lands realistically provide given its own workload?
GOV. OTTER: Overall, the Forest Service reaction has been very positive. They are clearly feeling the same pressures the rest of us feel. I went to our legislature for a $2 million supplemental budget so that we could be certain that our Department of Lands was in a position to provide the Forest Service with real on-the-ground assistance in preparing, implementing and executing forest restoration projects. What is sometimes forgotten is that the full 2014 Farm Bill potential in Idaho is about 6.3 million acres, so we’re just getting started.
EVERGREEN: It has long been our view that some in leadership roles in the USFS are playing lip service to collaboration, which they view as an unwelcome grass roots invasion of their turf. Do you agree or disagree with our perspective – and if you agree, how might a new FS chief end the foot-dragging that many stakeholder collaboratives are experiencing?
GOV. OTTER: Again, I expect real change in the Trump Administration. Performance is going to be measured in some tangible and easily understood manner that ties back to the land. My overall impression is that younger folks in the Forest Service are very enthusiastic about getting more work done on the ground, and I look for the incoming Administration to do everything possible to support that enthusiasm.
EVERGREEN: What would be your preference for a tangible means of measuring performance on the ground?
GOV. OTTER: I’m not a forester, but there seems to be a lot of interest in measuring acres treated annual – the treatment means being thinning following by prescribed fire to eliminate logging slash and years of biomass accumulation.
EVERGREEN: The President-elect didn’t say much about federal lands issues during his campaign, but one thing he did say was that he wasn’t much interested in transferring national forest ownership to the states. Is that your understanding as well?
GOV. OTTER: That’s my impression, too. I think he’s too much of a nationalist to even want to consider the idea of handing title to federal lands to the respective states. But I think he will address the social, economic and environmental challenges facing states that hold great amounts of federal land that haven’t been managed very well in recent years.
EVERGREEN: Might a more motivated Congress finally fix the fire borrowing mess in the early weeks of the Trump Administration?
GOV. OTTER: I hope so. Taking money from forest restoration budgets to fight forest fires is a backwards approach. We don’t penalize other federal agencies that have responsibility for dealing with floods, hurricanes or earthquakes.
EVERGREEN: Our own view is that FEMA needs to handle big wildfires, not the Forest Service, which seems to have turned fighting wildfires into its own cottage industry. Do you agree?
GOV. OTTER: Yes, I do. The Forest Service’s sole focus should be on forest restoration because it is key to protecting watersheds, fish and wildlife habitat and the wealth of recreation opportunity that our national forests provide.
EVERGREEN: Do we overplay our hand if we buy into the idea that Trump’s win came in large measure as a result of an deep-seated anger among the nation’s rural voters over the way the federal government has treated them over the last 25 years?
GOV. OTTER: The flood of red that colors the election night map tells its own sad story about the way the federal government has treated rural counties over the last 20 or so years. The dam finally burst. But what must not be forgotten is that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 130,000 votes. But she lost because the Electoral College vote favored Trump by a substantial margin. Credit our Founding Fathers for seeing the need to protect rural areas from the undue influence of our more populous cities.
EVERGREEN: Your thoughts on how the incoming Administration might calm the nerves of anxious conservationists who fear a return to the James Watt era?
GOV. OTTER: President-elect Trump gave a very conciliatory victory speech on election night. I think this is a guy who wants to bring as many people of varying points of view as possible into his big tent. He is going to be a collaborator on a very large scale, which is another reason why I think our all-volunteer stakeholder collaboratives are going to get lots of help over the next four years.
EVERGREEN: We hope so, but many see a kind of “damn the torpedoes” mentality that they don’t trust.
GOV. OTTER: Whether you voted for Trump on someone else, the outcome underscores a deep-seated desire for immediate change. But I don’t think the media’s characterization of Trump is going to turn out to be very accurate. This is a guy with a long history of asking many questions all up and down the line before he decides what to do. If you saw his CBS Sixty Minutes interview, you learned that he even asks cement workers on his construction projects for their opinions. That’s not a “damn the torpedoes” approach. That’s collaboration on the part of a man who values the opinions of those who work around him.
EVERGREEN: If asked by the incoming Administration, what would you advise concerning the need for Congress to insulate collaborative stakeholder groups from serial litigators? Might binding arbitration or balance of harms legislation be the route to go?
GOV. OTTER: We have to fix the Equal Access to Justice Act. Litigation has become little more than a fund-raiser to serial litigators who use the Act to tap the federal treasury. Inserting “loser pays” language into the Act would eliminate a lot of expensive nuisance lawsuits without undermining the intent of the Act. Equal access should be equal, but so long as litigators can blow up the good work of stakeholder collaboration, it won’t be equal. That’s got to change.
EVERGREEN: What role to you expect the western governor’s will play in the selection of key federal resource managers, to include the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, the Under Secretaries and Chief of the Forest Service?
GOV. OTTER: I hope a big one. We are state-level fiduciaries on the front lines in western states that hold millions of acres of federal forest and rangeland that is in environmental crisis. Something has to change very quickly. Last time I checked, somewhere between 80 and 90 million acres of federal forest land in the West were on the brink of ecological collapse. The lands are vital to our entire nation’s social, economic and environmental health. We have a lot of work to do and not much time left in which to get it done.
EVERGREEN: Should the collaboratives in Idaho, Montana, eastern Washington and elsewhere have a say in who gets picked?
GOV. OTTER: I don’t see why not. They’ve certainly earned their stripes over the last bunch of years, and they certainly know what’s needed in terms of ground-level performance and results.
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