It’s not the sort of thing a person expects from lumber millworkers in a town almost solely dependent on its mill - fighting a proposed land swap that would give their employer more prime timber.
But the mission of Billy Rose and several of his co-workers at Potlatch Corp.’s St. Maries mill is to stop a piece of elk habitat from shifting from the U.S. Forest Service’s control to Potlatch.
None of the workers is opposed to logging. But all believe logging would ruin this particular 2-square-mile piece of paradise they call the Bond Creek Glades.
“If they trade that, knowing that country, they are going to over-cut what’s there,” said Cliff Lanning, one of Rose’s co-workers. Then the springs will dry up, sediment will fill the creeks and the elk will be run off by hunters with easy access on logging roads, he said.
Plenty of the surrounding country already has been logged, these millworkers said.
“I sometimes feel this is a losing battle, but I cannot let this small area be destroyed without a fight,” said Rose, a lithe man of 50 with 24 years at Potlatch and a passion for wildlife.
The fight is somewhat like his tours as a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam, waging other losing battles. But in that war, as in this skirmish, “I am proud that I tried.”
Potlatch, meanwhile, said it’s far too early to decide if chain saws will hit the area. “We have entered into an agreement to investigate an exchange,” said spokesman Mike Sullivan.
The workers’ concerns “will be addressed during the process and the Forest Service has a history of listening, as we do,” Sullivan said.
The Bond Creek Glades are 18 miles east of St. Maries and four miles from the turn-of-the-century frame house where Rose lives, as his mother did before him. The Glades are a quilt of timber and grassland, folded into deep canyons and steep ridges, surrounded by land owned by Potlatch and other private interests. Game trails crisscross the steep slopes.
Portions were horse-logged decades ago. The logs were run by flume down Bond Creek to a mill at St. Joe City. Little evidence of that remains, and native cutthroat trout still spawn in Bond Creek.
The rugged country is perfect for elk, Rose explained as he maneuvered his Ford Bronco to a good vantage point.
Grassy slopes provide winter and spring feed for elk. Timber in the draws and on the ridges provide cover for elk to mate, have calves, and take refuge from hunters.
Rose has counted as many as 70 elk here during winter. Moose, mountain lion, at least one wolf and a rare, low-elevation herd of mule deer have also been spotted, he said.
He interrupts this dialogue, jams on the brakes, looks out the window and declares: “Elk tracks. There’s been a herd through here this morning.”
Rose acknowledges that taking his fight public is akin to telling the world about your best hunting spot. But keeping this piece of ground intact for wildlife is more important, he said.
He has tried to persuade Potlatch to use its nearby land to establish campgrounds and viewpoints that would show off the glades. That’s gone nowhere. Then in June, the proposed Forest Service trade was advertised in an obscure legal notice in the local weekly newspaper.
Rose rallied. He wrote Congress and Forest Service officials to try to stop the swap.
He hung petitions opposing the trade in St. Maries businesses, gathering nearly 140 signatures. A quarter of the signatures are from Potlatch workers, he estimated.
Rose said he has received more support than he expected, with criticism coming from only a few coworkers. This isn’t a campaign against Potlatch or logging, he emphasized, noting, “I would oppose this trade no matter who’s involved.”
Neither Rose nor his co-workers fear company retribution. Even if there is, “what I’m thinking about is the future,” Rose said. “I don’t want that place ruined, and that’s more important to me than my job.”
The Bond Creek Glades comprise about half of the Forest Service acreage in what’s called the Marble Creek land exchange. As proposed, it gives Potlatch 2,652 acres of Forest Service land in return for 2,325 acres of Potlatch ground. Both sides are swapping logged and unlogged land to consolidate their ownership and make it easier to manage.
There’s always more Forest Service property on the table at the beginning to make sure there’s enough to cover a trade if problems come up with some of the land, said Robert Artis of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. The bottom line isn’t the amount of land - it’s that each group trades land of equal value.
That usually means the Forest Service ends up with more acreage because the land it is giving up often has more valuable timber.
The Forest Service only now is appraising the timber and evaluating the fish, wildlife and plants on both sets of property, Artis said. It will be spring before there’s a final decision.
The public comment period closed last month but, “We’re completely open - we haven’t made up our mind,” Artis said. The agency will pay attention to the dozen letters and the petitions, he said, because “the people that live next door to the property probably know more about the property than we do.”
The Bond Creek Glades aren’t critical to the mill, Rose and his coworkers say. Potlatch has plenty of timber to supply the St. Maries mill.
Opponents of the land swap are as worried about logging roads and the possibility of the area being sold after the trade as they are about timber harvest.
“Logging is great, we have to have the timber products,” said Kent Wittrock, a mill worker.
But after it’s traded? “Who knows? They could subdivide it and put trailer houses on it,” Wittrock said.
Using gates to protect the area from motorized hunting would do little good, said Kenny Posselt, a part-time wildlife artist and mill worker. “You can gate it, but fourwheelers can get around it and shoot the hell out of (the elk),” he said.
Not far from the glades, a half-inch-thick steel plate, part of a Potlatch gate post, sports seven bullet holes. It marks the entrance to a company clearcut that is mostly thistle and brush - exactly the result Potlatch workers fear for the glades.
There’s no guarantee that if the Forest Service keeps the land the logging trucks won’t arrive. But that scenario is preferable, Bond Creek advocates say.
With the Forest Service, “there would be less chance of abuse if logging were to take place,” Rose said. The state, which regulates logging on private land “has limited resources to properly prevent and punish misuse of the land.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos; Map of Potlatch land swap area