Idaho Counties Struggle As Federal Timber Rules Slow The Harvest

May 14, 2014

In a 2010 public policy survey by Boise State University, people were asked which level of government they most trust. The federal government lagged far behind state and local entities.

That distrust has led Idaho's Republican majority Legislature to try and nullify the federal health care law, kick out the EPA, and take over all the federal land in Idaho. A lot of that animosity comes from federal ownership of what many believe should be Idaho-owned lands.

That tug-of-war with the federal government over public lands isn't new. The issue is one reason Idaho's Republican majority has dominated the political landscape for much of its history. But in some mountain communities, distrust of the federal government has deepened in recent decades as outside environmental regulations have helped decimate the local economy. 

Logging in a small town

Outside a small office on main street, big trucks rumble through the tiny town of Council on their way to somewhere else. They all have one thing in common: none of them carry logs or lumber.

Mark Mahon's father and grandfather spent their careers in the logging industry. Now he helps run the family business, Tom Mahon Logging. The 14-person outfit can harvest 14 million feet of timber.
Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio

Third generation logger Mark Mahon says that’s a far cry from when he grew up in town in the 1970s and 80s.

“I remember sitting in elementary school and my dad was driving a log truck, I’d get up out of my desk and watch the truck go by and sit back down,” Mahon says, “and it’s very rare that we see log trucks going through town anymore."

Mark and his brother could identify the owners of all the log trucks that used to roll past their school. He remembers playing timber harvest on the playground as a kid, using tree limbs as logs.

His first job in the forest was at age 9 when he went into the woods with his dad on small U.S. Forest Service jobs. That summer, he earned $100 as a member of his family’s logging crew. 

Kids knew they would follow in their dads’ footsteps and get a job logging or working for a sawmill.  Council, New Meadows, Cascade, Cambridge, Riggins were all mill towns.

Adams County Commissioner Bill Brown grew up in New Meadows. His dad worked in the sawmills like JI Morgan and Tamarack. “Back when I grew up, if you had a good job working for JI Morgan, not only did you run your whole career out there, but your kids would come in,” Brown remembers. “And those were good jobs. It was passed on.”

Bill Brown worked for the sawmill like his dad until he opened his own store in New Meadows. Now, he says, things are different.
Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio

Brown graduated from New Meadows High School in 1970 and went into the military in 1971. It was a good life, but something was missing. “I had to come back to my hometown, I had to be in this culture,” he says. “It’s that interaction with the community, it’s the lifestyle, it’s the fishing, hunting, the camaraderie.”

He remembers when companies like JI Morgan and Boise Cascade provided not only a good paying job but inexpensive housing too. “All the lawns were mowed, all the places were painted every other year or two,” says Brown. “It was a community. And people had pride in what they had.”

Brown got a job at the nearby Tamarack sawmill. He worked that life until he lost his hand at the mill in 1976. His roots were deep and he knew it was time to try for his dream, owning his own store in his hometown. Now, New Meadows boasts Brown’s Mountain Market. 

He worked at the store several years before turning the business over to his son and becoming the chairman of the Adams County Commissioners. Now he sees the change in his community. “When I grew up, I knew everybody’s name in New Meadows. I can go into the business today and 50 to 70 percent of the people I won’t know, and that’s in a small rural community,” Brown says.

Back in the 1970s, there were years when one billion board feet of timber was harvested just from the national forest lands in Idaho, today it’s about 100 million board feet. That 90 percent drop hit Adams County hard. “The stability of those small rural communities has been shaken to its core,” says Brown.

Changes in America change how the forest is managed

To really understand how Adams County got to this point, you have to go back to just after World War II.  Demand for lumber shot up as returning soldiers wanted their own homes. “They needed a place to raise their families, so there was a big increase in the demand for single family housing,” says Dr. Jay O’Laughlin, a professor of forestry and policy sciences at the University of Idaho. Soon, trees started coming from federal lands in Idaho and nearby states. That included Idaho where 63 percent of the state is managed by the federal government.

The federal government manages 34.5 million acres of land in Idaho, nearly two-thirds of the 53.5 million acres that make up Idaho's land mass - Idaho Department of Lands

“There was really a three decade peak,” says O’Laughlin. "It began in the late 1950s and it ended in the late 1980s. When there were huge quantities of timber removed from the national forest system lands.”

During this peak, there was also a cultural change happening in America. John Freemuth is a professor of political science at Boise State University. “Rather than simply being places to produce goods and services for a kind of industrialized society, they became areas to protect for clean water, for biodiversity, for recreation of many kinds, so that created politics and argument,” says Freemuth.

The politics of environmentalism began in the 1970s. "With the passage of the environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act of 73, the Planning Act for National Forests in 76, plus the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act of the 70s, the 70s truly was the environmental era,” O'Laughlin says.

In Oregon, the northern spotted owl became a national symbol of the change in how forests were managed. It was listed as threatened in 1990. In Idaho, O’Laughlin says it was fish that affected national forest access. The sockeye salmon became endangered in ‘92, followed by the Kootenai River white sturgeon in ‘94, the bull trout was listed as threatened in ‘98. Protecting species and water in the forests contributed to a downturn in timber harvesting on federal land in the 1990s.

Freemuth says that was a change, from the many years when Idahoans were able to get lots of resources out of federal lands. “But as values have changed, I think some Idahoans have felt that what they got used to changed on them,” says Freemuth. “They got upset by that.”

This park in Council is what's left of the Boise Cascade mill that once thrived here. The sawmill closed down in 1995.
Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio

As the timber harvest fell, mills started to close. Jobs disappeared. The Boise Cascade sawmill in Council closed in 1995. That led to a feeling of resentment for many in Adams County who live right next door to the Payette National forest. “People closest to the land feel their voice doesn’t matter,” says Freemuth. “That’s a legitimate concern."

The closure of mills in the 1990's continued into the next decade, when factors including the Great Recession and the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008 slowed timber harvests not just on federal timber lands, but on state and private lands as well.

Government money, the national forest, and counties

It wasn’t just jobs that were lost as the national forest logging heyday began its downward slide. Some of the money that communities got from the federal government was affected as well. 

For years, the federal government has compensated counties for some of the money they can’t make off of the federal lands within their borders. There are two main funds. 

Payments in Lieu of Taxes or PILT are federal payments to rural communities that contain federal land, including national forests and Bureau of Land Management land. The goal of PILT is to help offset losses in property taxes because counties can’t tax federal lands within their boundaries. The government has handed over more than $6.3 billion in PILT payments to states since the program started in 1977.  PILT money is distributed based on a complicated formula, including county populations and how much federal land is within the county. Counties then spend the money on law enforcement, schools, roads, and search and rescue operations.

Credit Department of the Interior

The other fund stems from an act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1908. It directed the U.S. Treasury to make a yearly payment to states based on national forest receipts. That adds up to 25 percent of the money the government receives each year. The cash is supposed to go to public schools and road maintenance. That money continued to rise until the mid-90s when it started falling off. That act was amended in 2000 by the Secure Rural Schools Act which made it into a more uniform payment. It was designed to act as a bridge for counties, that were suffering from the a loss of timber money. The act has since expired, but has managed to hang on with renewals by Congress. Jay O’Laughlin says the law's future is very uncertain.

Chart not adjusted for inflation
Credit U.S. Forest Service

Not everyone is happy with the program. "We are a very proud people, we don’t want a government hand out, we don’t want Secure Rural Schools,” says Mark Mahon. “The people of Adams County just want to go to work, and we want to maintain and take care of ourselves, we don’t want the government to send us a check so that we can maintain our roads and put our kids through school. We have this renewable resource all around us and we can’t use it. It’s tied up.”

More regulation means frustration for many

Mahon says his family has managed to hang on to their 14-person logging operation. But he says loggers are constantly running up against federal regulations when it comes to cutting trees on the national forest. “I get very frustrated, I shake my head and walk away because there’s so much of this land that could be put to use,” says Mahon.

In Adams County, roughly 68 percent of the land is owned by the federal government. Commissioner Bill Brown says that land is locked up, away from the people who live on or near it. “The entrepreneur can’t do nothing; he can’t go out and do anything because it’s the federal lands and their policies won’t allow you to do anything.”

Brown’s not the only lawmaker frustrated with the federal government. “I think they’re totally out of touch,” says Rep. Paul Shepherd, a Republican from Riggins. “There’s something very wrong [with] the reasoning that led to this process of eliminating the mills.”

(Correction: Initial chart title left out the word 'federal')
Credit Chart by Boise State Public Radio / Data from the Idaho Forest Products Commission

Shepherd was raised on a little sawmill by Idaho City, and has been involved with timber all his life. Now he has his own small mill for his log home business. He’s watched mill after mill close down over the years. “Because the federal government is obligated to represent the whole United States and people not aware of Idaho get to weigh in and gang up on Idaho,” says Shepherd.

He says he got into politics to protect Idaho’s resources. This year, he tried to pass a bill to nullify any rule coming out of the Environmental Protection Agency that hadn’t gone through Congress. He watched two years ago as Idaho legislators, frustrated with federal land policy, passed a resolution to find a way to give control of public land in Idaho to the state. He supports that effort. “It’s because the other states don’t have public land and they think they’re saving this public land, they don’t understand what’s happening out here. They think they’re doing the right thing,” says Shepherd.

Downtown Council boasts too many empty storefronts, too many for sale signs, leaving locals saddened by all that's been lost.
Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio

No matter Washington’s intent, logger Mark Mahon says federal rules are slowly turning his hometown into a ghetto. “It’s just very depressing to drive through downtown Council, it’s very junky,” he says. “All these buildings had businesses in them when I was growing up and there is really no industry, it’s very sad to drive the main streets of our rural communities.”

Some former logging towns have reinvented themselves by focusing on things like tourism or recreation. But Adams County has a long way to go. Unemployment here is 11.8 percent, the second highest in the state. A figure like that makes it easier to understand why communities like this one are weary of the federal government.

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