Conservation: From the Timber Wars to collaboration

What is ‘winning’ in the woods? — Part I

By 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 visit

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 Boulder-White Clouds and Owyhee Canyonlands, 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 indicative 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, Payette 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 environmental review. Because they would be administered by the Idaho Department of Lands under the “Good Neighbor Authority” policy — giving the state power to manage 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 sensitive 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 conflict and the long road — especially through roadless areas — by which it has been defined. 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 carried a piece Sept. 6, 1993, from the Associated Press headlined “Radical Group Making 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 opposition, including tactics seen elsewhere in Oregon, Washington and California, with its members erecting barriers, tree sitting, participating 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, Gospel Hump and Selway-Bitterroot wildernesses, 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 Clearwater, 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 appeals to bringing litigation related to public land issues in the Clearwater Basin. 

Gary Macfarlane explores the Montana wilderness in the 1980s. Courtesy photo.

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 Lewiston Tribune added another descriptor: “feisty,” noting that because of the group’s opposition 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 “downhill” trajectory from the time of the forest reserves in the early 20th century.

On the violent aspect of the conflicts at Cove-Mallard and other places, he remains angry.

“That [violence] has been one-sided, always directed against activists,” Macfarlane said. “The founder of Friends of the Clearwater was beaten in front of his two young boys at Cove-Mallard by an irate logger who was from out of state — Alaska, I recall. The assailant used brass knuckles and had one of the blows landed one inch differently, [he] would have been killed. Peaceful activists who sat in the road received far more jail time in sentencing than did this thug. I am not sure he ever did any time, anyway. There were assaults in the late 1990s as well.” 

Press reports from the time indeed cover the arrest and trials of 50 people in 1993 alone. All activists.

“There were sit-ins and things like that that were kind of like the sit-ins in Oregon. That was probably the most vehement of the clashes, of the battles that we had in Idaho was Cove-Mallard,” said Jay O’Laughlin, a University of Idaho professor emeritus of forestry, who began his work in Idaho in 1989 — just in time to play an important role in crafting some of the policies intended to ease tensions between land managers and citizen conservation groups.

“Beyond Cove-Mallard, I can’t really think of anything [in Idaho] that was like the demonstrations that 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,” Macfarlane 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,” whereby 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-Clearwater area — the very heart of Idaho’s most vigorous protests — he said collaboration accomplished one thing: “Greatly increasing the logging levels.”

Macfarlane’s assessment of collaboration notwithstanding, the Good Neighbor Authority, in particular, has been supported 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 and activism. 

“You don’t have a level table or playing 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 whatever 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 industry, 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-serving female senator in Idaho history. Today, she serves on the Idaho State Board of Education. 

Former District 1 Sen. Shawn Keough.
Photo by Marie-Dominique Verdier.

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 environmental 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 communities 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 Timber 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 forest 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 vitriol 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 industry during the 1980s and ’90s, however, and often placed the blame on “environmentalists” as well as the Clinton administration 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 logging in the Nez Perce-Clearwater were doing 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 — “People 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 — particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement, 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 Congressional District from 1995 to 2001, made pushing back against both the environmental and trade policies of the Clinton administration one of her signature issues.

Former Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage testifies before Congress in 2000. Photo courtesy C-SPAN.

In her first year in office alone, Chenoweth-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 Accountability Act in 1997 and put her name to other bills intended to pull the country out of international trade and monetary organizations.

Perhaps the arch-conservative Chenoweth-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 endangered, 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 politicians like Chenoweth-Hage, compelling analysis from University of Idaho Sociology Professor Ryanne Pilgeram, cited in her 2022 book Pushed Out: Contested Development 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 mechanization 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 supply of timber from federal lands was dramatically 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, automation 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 economic 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 hardening 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 visit To find previous installments, visit

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