Defending Our Public Lands: One Man’s Legacy

Conservationist Ron Mitchell passed away from heart failure on May 14, 2020.

Ron grew up in Nampa, Idaho dreaming of adventure and reading magazines like “Field and Stream” and “Sports Afield” – publications he would later write for. He was a consummate outdoorsman who knew the land and loved it intimately, and dedicated most of his adult life to preserving it.

On a shoestring budget and with whatever resources he could muster, Ron waged a four decade-long war against those who threatened the wildlife, forests, streams and wetlands of the Northern Rockies. Be they politicians, timber corporations, or government bureaucrats, Ron took them on with a focused passion and unrivaled success.

But, Ron held a special ire for those who supposedly stand for the Land Ethic of Aldo Leopold while conniving behind the scenes to give away more and more of our public lands to the forces of destruction in the name of political expediency.

When “Gang Green”infamously turned-tail and ran from the Cove/Mallard timber sales, Ron pawned his hunting rifle and borrowed money from friends and relatives in order to file a new lawsuit to stop that butchery. And, in one of his last guest opinions, he held nothing back in pummeling the environmentalists who capitulated in the “war waged for 50 years to save the Boulder-White Clouds.”

For those of us who had the privilege of knowing him, Ron was a beloved friend, a comrade, a mentor and historian, and a great teller of tales who always wanted to hear yours. He was also one of the most generous, good-natured and decent humans to ever walk the wilds of planet Earth. Truly, one of a kind.

If you are of the mind that one person cannot make a difference, Ron Mitchell’s life was a testament to the contrary.

These are his words, written in 2003, conveying his strategy for defending our public lands. It is also a laundry list (by no means exhaustive) of his many accomplishments and precedent-setting litigation.

– Steven Davis, Oregon

Idaho Sporting Congress

The Idaho Sporting Congress (ISC) formed in 1983 as a 501(c)(3) non-profit public interest group with offices in Boise, Idaho. ISC’s mission is to protect public lands nationwide through law compliance, legislation, and public education. Our focus is on public lands in Idaho and Montana, as well as eastern Washington and Oregon.

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem of Montana and Idaho contains 20% of our country’s total public National Forest land. It includes the largest remaining areas of pristine wilderness as yet unprotected from logging by the Wilderness Act, equivalent in size to seven Yellowstone National Parks. This rich natural heritage supports nearly every species of fish and wildlife that existed when Lewis and Clark passed by in 1806.

The Challenge

Protecting and sustaining these priceless natural resources should be an American imperative; but surprisingly, the U.S. Forest Service prioritizes destructive industrial exploitation through logging, mining, and livestock grazing, while routinely sidestepping environmental laws like the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Although the U.S. Forest Service was created by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1907 to safeguard these lands, the agency has subverted its original mission. New policies evolved as a small logging program exploded into a timber empire due to the now infamous “Wooden Triangle,” a symbiotic relationship wherein logging corporations contribute to the campaign coffers of politicians, who in turn make Forest Service funding and job security dependent on logging that delivers cheap taxpayer subsidized timber to the corporations.

The destruction from this massive logging led Congress to pass the National Forest Management Act in 1976. However, the Forest Service has flouted the law, while Congress and the public have permitted the logging to continue, even though it produces only 2% of the nation’s wood products supply and would be quickly supplanted by free market private timber were its subsidy removed.

ISC Solutions

The most effective immediate solution is for American citizens, the real owners of the National Forests, to assume full responsibility for demanding compliance with existing forest protection laws. Fish and wildlife habitats degraded by five decades of binge clearcutting, are unable to meet even minimum legal and ecological standards. The Idaho Sporting Congress has emerged as the nation’s most successful citizen challenges to Forest Service logging with an unequaled record of 22 major court victories protecting hundreds of thousands of forested acres. ISC has set several important legal precedents empowering other citizen conservation actions across this country and has provided the media with news stories educating the public. In 2001 logging giant Boise Cascade Corporation attributed the closure of it’s three Idaho mills to ISC lawsuits. In 2002 three ISC lawsuits halted logging on a million acres of Idaho’s Payette and Boise National Forests, equal in size to half of Yellowstone Park.

The fact that massive destruction would have occurred without ISC’s legal intervention demonstrates our litigation’s efficacy. Court interpretation and enforcement of existing laws is essential to any American conservation program.

Idaho Sporting Congress Record of Achievement

+ In 1993, an ISC lawsuit halted the Forest Service national practice of dismissing citizen appeals for minor typographical errors such as wrong dates, wrong words etc.

+ In 1994-1997, ISC won 3 historic Clean Water Act lawsuits forcing the E.P.A. to compel the State of Idaho to fulfill water quality protections after 21 years of refusing to do so.

+ In 1995, ISC lead the nation’s conservationists exposing the “salvage” logging rider bill (which suspended forest protection laws) as a hoax, as reported by New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Bill Moyers, Tom Brokaw and National Public Radio. The story resulted in Washington Senator Patty Murray leading a Congressional debate culminating in the rescinding of the infamous Salvage Rider.

+ Also in 1995, ISC won a lawsuit halting the destruction of the Deadwood Roadless Area of the Boise National Forest, home to a wolf pack, old-growth forest and a Wild and Scenic River corridor, which assisted in the defeat of the Salvage Rider.

+ In 1997-8, ISC won three precedent setting lawsuits blocking logging, and halting the Idaho Federal Court’s long-standing alliance with extractive industries.

+ ISC exposed Native American archaeological site destruction by Forest Service in Associated Press stories.

+ In 1999 ISC won two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits forcing the Forest Service to open records to the public and setting precedents used by conservationists nationwide.

+ In 2000, ISC became the first Northern Rockies conservationist voice opposing National Forest Recreation Fees, exposing a joint Disney Corporation/Forest Service plan to commercialize and privatize management of publicly-owned National Forest campgrounds and other recreation assets.

+ In 2002, ISC won a decision from the Montana District court setting a national precedent that the Forest Service may not ignore citizen appeals of 15-year Forest Plans. Wolf and grizzly migration corridors on the Continental Divide linking Yellowstone Park to Glacier Park were protected along with the 5,000 acre Miner’s Creek Roadless Area.

+ From 1998 through 2002, ISC led the nation in halting illegal logging, winning all nine lawsuits filed and inspiring other conservation groups to utilize these decisions in protection of old growth forests.

+ In September 2002, ISC won three rulings from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, banning logging of old growth on 1 million acres in the Boise and Payette National Forests, Idaho. The rulings are now being leveraged by conservationists within the Ninth Circuit from Alaska to California, east to Montana, and cited nationwide for their precedents.

+ In November of 2002 ISC stopped 11 Payette National Forest logging projects which threatened old growth forest, endangered species and other wildlife, and in defiance of U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rulings won by ISC in September, 2002.