To timber mill workers, loggers, Boise Cascade executives and rural county officials in the 1990s, John McCarthy was the face of the enemy.
McCarthy, then the public lands director of the Idaho Conservation League, was the man they saw on local television speaking out against timber harvests he considered damaging to water quality, fisheries, endangered species and future wilderness. He was the voice on National Public Radio speaking against the logging that was at the heart of their livelihoods and culture.
His tone was often harsh. His rhetoric sometimes went over the top. He was easy to hate for people who were watching their lives fall apart because of mechanization, changing markets and environmental activism.
McCarthy was they guy pictured hugging the big ponderosa pines of the Deadwood Roadless Area that Boise Cascade had already marked for harvest. He was like Dr. Seuss’s character the Lorax, he spoke for the trees.
To many of his former enemies, John McCarthy is now the face of collaboration. He and ICL joined Owyhee County, ranchers, local officials and others in the initiative to protect wilderness and ranchers.
He and other environmentalists were told by the Owyhee Cattleman’s Association there would be no wilderness without the support of every single rancher affected. McCarthy was the primary person who went to the ranches, met with the families and mapped out the places that eventually would make the 500,000-acre wilderness areas protected by Congress in 2009.
Then McCarthy went to work for the Wilderness Society, going back to the Forest Service officials who he had so often clashed during the forest wars and joined their efforts to restore fire to the ecosystems of Southwest Idaho. To do this thinning and even logging was needed, especially around communities to give them the comfort necessary to allow burning in the backcountry.
Through these efforts and his work on Resource Advisory Councils established by legislation sponsored by another old foe, Sen. Larry Craig, McCarthy began building relationships with the timber communities. He and his new partners former loggers and Boise Cascade foresters, formed collaborative groups that are successfully bringing federal funding back to the forests for logging and other restoration work.
He and the Wilderness Society actually supported funding for a new timber mill in Emmett.
Deadwood, along nearly 9 million acres of roadless lands in Idaho is now protected as a part of the Idaho Roadless Plan that ironically had the support of the timber industry and his old group the ICL but not he and the Wilderness Society. Fire burned through parts of the area in 2007 but Forest Service foresters said most of the big trees survived and the fires did minimal damage.
This week McCarthy, the Lorax, retires from the Wilderness Society. He will spend some of his time clearing trails in the central Idaho wilderness, volunteering to do what he did when he started his outdoor career in Idaho decades before.