LeRoy Lee, hailed as a “giant” by conservationists for his work in exposing the overcutting of federal forests, died Wednesday morning at his home in Santa, Idaho. He was 50 and is believed to have died of a heart attack, friends said.
Although Lee once testified before the Congress and uncovered what many in the conservation community say was one of the biggest environmental scandals in recent Inland Northwest history, he lived a simple, private life and focused most of his energy for the last decade on teaching science classes in the St. Maries School District.
John Cordell, principal of St. Maries High School – where the school mascot is a lumberjack – said Lee was beloved by students for his eccentric style of teaching physics, chemistry and biology, which included frequent use of a guitar, a harmonica and magic tricks.
“It just ticks me off – he goes to the grave with the tricks he’s never even shown me answers to,” Cordell said. “He was way cool. He was a great teacher.”
Lee assumed an important role in a community where he was once told never to return. It happened in the early 1990s during a meeting in St. Maries with small logging contractors, according to Barry Rosenberg, a friend and director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. Tension was high because timber sales were being curtailed in national forests across the nation. Many loggers blamed environmental lawsuits for the slowdown, though Lee and other conservationists contended the situation was partially due to years of overcutting by the U.S. Forest Service.
“The minute I opened my mouth, people started yelling at me,” Rosenberg recalled of the meeting. “It just got out of hand. LeRoy and I were back to back. We thought we were going to get nabbed. We were both warned never to come back to St. Maries again.”
Lee never really left the place, though he steered clear of public environmental activism after getting work as a teacher in the late 1990s. Cordell, the high school principal, said Lee never hid his views.
“He was a tree-hugger kind of guy at heart,” Cordell said, adding that Lee and his students sometimes engaged in vigorous debate over land-use practices. “It was never vicious, never mean.”
Lee, a California native, was working as a seasonal contract worker for the Forest Service near Avery, Idaho, in the mid-1980s when he discovered what he believed were widespread inaccuracies in how the agency tracked timber harvests. Essentially, the Forest Service records showed tens of thousands of acres of mature trees where the ground showed stumps.
Using piles of maps, aerial photos and agency computer records, Lee uncovered massive discrepancies in records kept by national forests across the region. In northwestern Montana’s Yaak Valley, for instance, three-quarters of clearcuts were listed on paper as mature forest.
In 1992, Lee explained his findings before the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee. Forest Service managers were exaggerating, Lee said, because the forest couldn’t grow fast enough to keep up with the pace of harvest, but these large-scale cuts also meant big budgets.
“They’ve fabricated a paper forest,” Lee told the subcommittee.
Congress investigated and found inaccuracies on 15 national forests across the West.
Rosenberg traveled with Lee to Washington, D.C., for the testimony. Lee wore leather-braided ponytails and had gaps in his teeth. He didn’t own a suit or a tie, but Rosenberg eventually persuaded him to wear a jacket and tie bought at a secondhand store.
“He was a back-to-the-lander, the salt of the earth,” Rosenberg said. “He was a giant.”
Spokane conservationist Dr. John Osborn was also closely involved in the so-called “phantom forest” issue, which received national media attention. He said Lee had nothing to gain by blowing the whistle on the agency that employed him.
“He was a guy with incredible personal integrity and concern about the forests,” Osborn said. “He knew the woods. … It took someone like LeRoy, who knew the woods, who had the skills as a timber stand examiner and had the personal integrity, to do this. To lose him at such a young age is just a heartbreak.”
Lee insisted he did not blame the Forest Service for the discrepancies. The agency was simply “implementing the will” of the American public, who wanted “toilet paper and cheap two-by-fours,” he said in an interview with the Lewiston Tribune shortly after testifying in Congress.
When he was in his 40s, Lee earned a teaching certificate from Lewis-Clark State College. He had a gift for connecting with troubled students, Cordell said. In 2005, Lee was named North Idaho’s high school science teacher of the year by a statewide association.
By all accounts, Lee lived the light-on-the-land lifestyle he preached. He and his longtime partner, Elizabeth Taylor, raised two sons and organic vegetables at their home in Santa – friends say he always seemed to have produce to share. Lee also had an interest in the culture of the Nez Perce Tribe and spent hours hiking the nearby backcountry, which is one reason many were shocked by his sudden death.
“I bet he didn’t have 5 percent body fat,” Cordell said.
Lee’s intimate knowledge of the forests of his backyard is what made him such a powerful force, according to Chuck Pezeshki, an environmentalist from Pullman who worked with Lee. In a message sent to colleagues across the region, Pezeshki hailed Lee for teaching him how important it was to “walk the ground you are trying to defend and know more about what you’re trying to defend than the guys that are trying to destroy it.”
Lee was buried Thursday afternoon in the Santa cemetery.