In the early 2000s, as a fly fisher who would rather wander off the beaten path in search of wild, backcountry trout than stand in the bow of a drift boat in hopes of hooking into a big-river behemoth, I wasn’t a big fan of Jim Caswell.
When I first met Caswell, he had just been appointed to head up Idaho’s Office of Species Conservation, a new state department installed by then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne in response to the “federal overreach” committed upon Idaho by the reintroduction of wolves into the Gem State and the very real possibility that the feds would assist grizzly bear recovery in the state by relocating a few bears into Idaho’s roadless interior.
The official purpose of the office was to meet its description, but anybody with a modicum of understanding of Idaho’s constant battle with the federal government over land and wildlife management on American public lands within its borders could read between the lines. It’s creation was basically a petulant response to government’s insistence that animals listed under the Endangered Species Act actually be protected and replenished. Idaho (and a lot of western states) had—and still has—a tenuous relationship with the ESA, and the dominant thought among the nearly all-Republican governing body in Boise was, “Hey, if we can show the feds we’re on top of this whole management thing, maybe they’ll leave us alone.”
Big predators spur big emotions in the West—the ancestors of today’s on-the-ground ranching and farming families worked for a century to gentrify the Rockies by killing wolves and grizzlies. And here come the feds and their pesky Endangered Species Act, bringing in a whole new batch of teeth and claws. Kempthorne, a career politician who eventually moved to DC to be George W. Bush’s second Interior secretary and scraped Idaho off his boots, might be most famous for his over-the-top quote, “I oppose bringing these massive flesh-eating carnivores into Idaho.”
Drama? Sure. But it was a shared sentiment among range families and Idaho’s deep red populous. And Caswell was brought in to manage that drama.
As an angler passionate about the backcountry and intact landscapes, I was all for rebuilding Idaho’s ecosystems, reinstalling top-of-the-food-chain predators and correcting the mistakes of the past. Caswell, I assumed, was a hired gun with some land management experience who was going to return Idaho to the dark days of wildlife management where wolves and bears were shot on sight, and the only things that really mattered were that grazing fees were never too pricey and water from the mountains made it to the hay fields as quickly as possible.
And there’s no doubt that Caswell worked from a conservative perspective when it came to species protection and land management—his boss was a Republican and Idaho is one of the reddest states in the Union. But he did participate in Idaho’s effort to craft its very own roadless land protection rule that today, stands as a beacon of conservation light in the otherwise dark days for the environment under the Bush White House. Idaho’s rule is more protective of its 9 million acres of roadless lands than the federal rule which protects the rest of America’s backcountry landscapes. That happened under two Republican governors (Jim Rish, now Idaho’s junior senator, and Butch Otter, who is about to be term-limited out of the Governor’s Mansion in Boise). Caswell did a lot of the grunt work, and should be credited for it.
Later, as the director of the BLM under Kempthorne and Bush, Caswell, a smart, unassuming guy, worked on behalf of the Bush administration to advance industry-friendly regulations for public lands resource extraction and the like—it was a fairly typical approach to land management under a Republican president. Caswell did his job, and he did it well. And that meant overseeing an agency that was directed to expedite resource extraction. He might argue with me on this, but my perception of the BLM in those days was not terribly flattering—above-ground resources, like trout water, mule deer winter range and general environmental health were not among the agency’s priorities. The Bush administration was not an environmentally friendly one. As Will Ferrell was kind enough to make us remember as he reprised his role of George W. Bush on a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, “I just wanted to address my fellow Americans tonight, and remind you guys that I was really bad.”
Caswell played a role in that administration’s general disregard for the environment in favor of extractive industry. He managed the BLM, an agency that, under Bush and Cheney, prioritized oil and gas development over any other use. One memorandum to Utah field offices during the Bush administration instructed BLM employees that "when an oil and gas lease parcel or when an application to drill comes in the door ... this work is their No. 1 priority." In eight years, the administration leased for oil and gas development some 44 million acres of public land, an area roughly the size of Oklahoma.
But Caswell was more than just a bureaucrat, and claiming this 2007-2009 stint with the BLM defines is career would be misleading. His career with federal land-management agencies (he was a forest supervisor for the Clearwater and Targhee national forests in Idaho prior to going to work for the state, and he has a forestry degree from Michigan State) gives him a unique perspective on public lands management, particularly in the West. In recent years, his support for keeping public lands in public lands has pushed my perception of him much closer to the center of the political spectrum. Caswell, with all his land-management experience at the state and federal levels, isn’t a politician. He’s a pragmatist who would never—ever—suggest that public lands be transferred or sold.
Instead, Caswell would suggest doubling down on our nation’s greatest resource and actually begin investing in our public lands again. He might possess the solution to America’s public lands conundrum, and if politicians in Washington would bother to listen to him instead of their corporate campaign sponsors, we might, once again be able to manage our nation’s shared heritage in a way that works for most of us. Agencies like the BLM and the Forest Service wouldn’t be derided as massive bureaucratic outfits out to screw the little guy (or the big guy, if you’re talking about oil, gas, timber and mining interests). Instead, everybody would be invested in the stewardship of the one national resource that makes America unique—the shared ownership of hundreds of millions of acres of largely pristine real estate.
A couple years back, I listened to Caswell address a group of reporters about public lands management in America. His take is embarrassingly simple: the public lands transfer-and-sale movement is backed by national-level political influencers, even as extremists on the local level scoff at the law and take over national wildlife refuges at gunpoint or come to defense of law-breaking landowners like the notorious and ridiculous Bundy clan. As he wrote in 2016 in the Idaho Statesman, “The entire land-transfer debate is driven by national politics. Much like the standoff in Oregon, it reeks of outside influence and does not serve the people of Idaho.”
OK. Problem identified. So, what’s the solution?
Caswell worked for 40 years in land management. He’s seen both the BLM and the Forest Service go from respected agencies that answered the concerns of local citizens and that served as marketeers for the great American outdoors to perceived heavy-handed bureaucracies that tell local folks what they can and can’t do on public lands from the comfort of their DC offices.
Essentially, Caswell says, the agencies have lost their connections to the communities that exist on the edges of these vast tracts of public land. “We used to live and work in these communities,” he said. “Our kids went to school with our neighbors’ kids. We went to church together. We’ve lost that.”
Indeed. Over the years, the budgets for both the Forest Service and the BLM have remained static, prohibiting needed on-the-ground work to keep trails open, maintain roads, perform forest-health work and generally keep our lands functional. Today, the Forest Service budget is almost identical to the budget it worked under in the 1970s, with inflation factored in. The challenge now, though, is that half (sometimes more) of the budget goes to fight wildfires brought on by increased fuel loads, drier summers, warmer winters and all the trappings of a changing climate. No longer is there money to clear trails in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Gone is the funding to contract for common-sense forest management practices that might prevent or a least minimize the impacts of fire. The agencies, forced by budget constraints and the unwillingness of Congress to fund them appropriately, have contracted and pulled away from the communities in which they were once to visible, respected and vital.
Maintaining offices in small communities on the edges of our public lands is no longer an affordable option under current budgetary demands. National forests have been combined for management purposes under tighter and tighter annual budgets. The Caribou and the Targhee are now one management entity. Same with the Bridger-Teton, the Gunnison, Grand Mesa and Uncompahgre and the Nez Perce-Clearwater, among many others.
“We’ve moved our offices out of communities like St. Anthony and relocated them to cities like Idaho Falls and Boise,” Caswell explained. The days of local Forest Service employees showing up at community potlucks or high-school basketball games are gone. Now, Caswell says, it’s done from the top down, and federal employees are strangers in the communities most impacted by the management of public lands.
There’s irony here. Every year, as corporate-funded politicians berate the Forest Service and the BLM for shoddy land management, they continue to trim away at budgets and the agencies’ ability to function properly. It’s the perfect recipe to do irreparable harm to the images of our land-management agencies—and to the shared American lands they manage: starve the agencies of funding, prevent them from doing the basic work needed to keep landscapes healthy and, when fire season comes, make them borrow from their own budgets to battle the blazes, all the while knowing that this will prohibit them from doing important work, like rebuilding roads lost in wash-outs, removing fallen trees from trails, thinning undergrowth around nearby communities and putting Americans to work managing our nation’s most valuable shared resource. Coincidence or diabolical intent? You be the judge.
The outcome? Hatred and derision for the agencies from the rural citizenry—it’s easier to despise a stranger who shows up to grade the Forest Service road once a month than it is to hate your neighbor who helped you out when you got stuck in a snowbank last winter or who ran the soccer team carpool last week.
Caswell and I might not see eye to eye on everything when it comes to land management. Hell, I possess an English degree from a small liberal arts school and I love to fly fish. My interests, and my expertise, honestly, are pretty narrow. Caswell is a big-picture guy who actually studied forestry, and while his perspective is certainly different from mine, I’ve come to admire him for his honesty when it comes to assessing the challenges facing the public lands I love so much.
But then, neither of us is a politician. And I think both of us would agree that the political agendas behind land management in this country is where the challenges begin and end when we consider the future of our public lands.