| May 01, 2008
State Sen. Rick Laible (R-Darby) used his position as chair of the state’s Fire Suppression Interim Committee to pimp his personal agenda April 28—failing to mention a significant conflict of interest until being publicly shamed by a local watchdog.

The state’s fire committee, solemnly charged by the legislature to “study various aspects of wildland fire, including suppression costs and resources and state and federal management policies,” met in Hamilton as part of a cross-state tour. To educate this committee, Laible scheduled an agenda composed primarily of fire professionals and timber agency men. But he also brought in some speakers whose interests had less to do with the committee than with the Big Sky Coalition (BSC).

So then, who is the BSC? While it claims to be a “common sense environmental group,” its goals include promoting “large, landscape-scale” logging projects, “getting the cut out” on public lands and using an unprecedented suspension of NEPA—the legally mandated environmental review process—to avoid having to hear from that pesky public.

One of the scheduled speakers at the meeting was Veto “Sonny” LaSalle, Big Sky’s executive director, who is charged with implementing the vision of the board of directors. Sitting on that board is none other than committee chairman Laible. In other words, LaSalle was presenting his ideas not just to fire committee chairman Sen. Laible, but also to his boss, Laible.

This affiliation didn’t get mentioned until 5:20 p.m., during the day’s last public comment period, when Matthew Koehler, executive director for the WildWest Institute, stepped forward and scolded Laible for being disingenuous in failing to disclose his connection with the hand-picked speaker.

Previously well-composed, Laible went pale, mustering only a half-assed, “I, uh, was gonna do that today, as well.”

Today, Mr. Laible? As in: During the committee’s last ten minutes? As in: Not once during the first seven hours of the hearing? As we see it, this kind of behavior shows a total disregard for the people of Montana and the issue at hand. It reduces the fire committee to a cronyistic dog and pony show.

Montana’s biennial session requires that our legislators have lives outside of politics—that’s appropriate, even expected. But full disclosure is necessary when there’s even an appearance of a conflict or impropriety. By presenting himself as if he had no affiliation with the man he’d actually hired, Laible significantly diminished the decorum of his body and the important work we ask it to perform.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us, Senator?

Comments (21)

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County says Big Sky Coalition founder built home in floodway by ANTHONY QUIRINI - Ravalli Republic May 12, 2008 Ravalli County is alleging that one of the founders of the Big Sky Coalition built his house in the floodway of the West Fork of the Bitterroot River. County officials believe that Tom Robak’s house sits in the actual floodway, not just the floodplain, and that “significant” amounts of fill have been placed. Placing fill and building in floodplains and floodways is strictly prohibited, and if the county is correct, it will require Robak to move the house. Robak is one of the founders of the Big Sky Coalition, whose Web site touts as “environmentalists with common sense.” Deputy Ravalli County Attorney Alex Beal wrote to Robak’s Attorney Dustin Chouinard saying, “As I hope I have conveyed above, these are very, very significant concerns ... The placement of a home in the floodway is of significant concern to everyone. Not only is there the great probability of the Robak house becoming inundated with flood waters, but there is a possibility the home could wash down stream and destroy other property.” Robak said he completed elevation studies and looked at floodplain maps before building his property. “We did the elevation study and it showed that the house, driveway and property is out of the floodplain,” Robak said. “They would like me to tear the house down because they say I raised the elevation of the house.” According to Robak, county officials came out to the building site to inspect where the house was being built three to four weeks into construction. Robak said he never heard from the county and then six months later they told him that the house was being built in the floodplain and floodway. “That’s really one of the big issues with me,” Robak said, adding that the house is his dream home. “At this stage of the game we’re sick about it. It’s taking a lot of energy.” According to county officials, placed fill may have altered elevation surveys. “The Ravalli County Floodplain and Environmental Health Offices have seen significant quantities of fill placed on Mr. Robak’s property, much of which appears to be in the actual floodway not just the floodplain,” Beal wrote. With more-than-average snowpack in the high country, officials are predicting significant flooding this spring. “Floodplain violations have required houses to be moved in the past,” Ravalli County Floodplain Administer Laura Hendrix said, noting a home near the Conner Cutoff that the county moved recently. Robak is taking the county’s concerns seriously. “They are serious, they have done it in the past,” he said. “They got my attention... I guess it will eventually take a judge.” This spring the county has issued two emergency floodplain permits so far. The permits allow citizens to build up banks or levies because of personal property damage from flooding. This could be one of the worst flooding years in the Bitterroot Valley if proper conditions prevail.

Posted by Matthew Koehler on 05/12/2008 at 9:07 AM

I've posted a response to Matthew's comment here:

Posted by BSC Webmaster on 05/08/2008 at 12:19 PM

Hey "Original Bingo," what the hell are you talking about? I apologize to Matthew Koehler, take back what I said, and I also feel terrible for aggreeing to the offer Harrington and friends gave me. I am feeble, terrible man who masturbates behind a toolshed every afternoon. Please forgive me Matthew. Bingo

Posted by Bingo on 05/07/2008 at 2:40 PM

See what happens, Mr. Bingo, when you lack the courage to use your own name while name-calling and posting a bunch of non-sense? Since you're apparently standing by your words, including your claim I'm making up the work of our organization, I will ask again: please enlighten the Indy readers with your knowledge and point out anything that I've said above that isn't accurate. Thanks.

Posted by Matthew Koehler on 05/07/2008 at 7:06 AM

The previous post was bogus using my blog name... shame on you for doing that and for using foul language. The original Bingo stands by the postings.

Posted by Original Bingo on 05/05/2008 at 3:11 PM

Actually, Matthew, I'm sorry for what I said, and I'm wrong. I'm also pissed... You see, State Forester Bob Harrington and Mark Rey and Jim Snow approached me in the alley behind Charlies and offered me 100 bucks and a buncha permitts if I got on and gave you a hard time. Anyhow, they didn't pay me, so I"m pissed, and I apologize for my rude and incensitive statements Mr. Koehler.

Posted by Bingo on 05/03/2008 at 4:04 PM

Bingo: You don't even have the balls to use your own name when posting a comment and then you go ahead and basically say that I'm lying and/or making up the work and efforts that our organization is involved in. Do us all a favor Bingo: please enlighten the Indy readers with your knowledge and point out anything that I've said above that isn't accurate. And in the future, Mr. Bingo, you may want to mix up your prose a little bit your language sounds awfully familiar. Thanks.

Posted by Matthew Koehler on 05/03/2008 at 7:18 AM

What self-aggrandizing tripe... and way too long. If these people did everything in the post, the forests would be healthy and fires would be low to the ground and beneficial to the environment. The truth is they are simply obstructionists who take delight in seeing hard-working Montana families out of jobs. How sad and sick.

Posted by Bingo on 05/02/2008 at 2:31 PM

(NOTE: Comment got cut off, so here is the rest of my comment) However, I agree that the main issue here is not Sen. Laible conflict of interest. I believe the issue we need to solve is how are we going to move forward with bona-fide efforts to protect our homes and communities from wildfire while we also move forward with bona-fide, scientifically-based efforts to restoration our national forests and watersheds that have been degraded by past, and in some cases on-going, mismanagement. As you can clearly see, local, grassroots organizations such as WildWest and others are working very hard to try and find these solutions and to move forward where there is consensus and agreement. It should be pointed out that while the BS Coalition says false things about our organization, our motives and resorts to name-calling, the fact remains that the BS Coalition isn’t involved in ANY of the collaborative groups or solution-based efforts that I described above. The BS Coalition has not joined FireSafe MT. They did not help establish the 13 Restoration Principles (although if you go to their website you’ll notice that they have changed the name of the 13 Restoration Principles and they have falsely claimed that the 13 Restoration Principles support their idea of “large, landscape-level thinning.”) In fact, the BS Coalition wanted to be on the Bitterroot Restoration Committee and the diverse people who make up this committee voted to not have the BS Coalition as members. Meanwhile, the BS Coalition has a letter of support on their website from an individual that was recently featured in the Missoulian because he called for people to burn down the homes of Sierra Club members ( Finally, I should also point out that in spite of all of this, in the past I’ve called Mr. LaSalle and asked him to give me a call so we could talk about these issues. Mr. LaSalle never called back. Furthermore, if you visit the BS Coalition’s website and look at their journal, you’ll see that I have often made comments that include an offer to sit down with any of the BS Coalition folks to talk more about these issues. They have never taken the effort to sit down and speak with us about these issues. I think this fact speaks volumes about the Big Sky Coalition, especially when looked at in the context of all the work and efforts to find solutions that is currently on-going that WildWest and other local, grassroots environmental groups in our state and region are involved with.

Posted by Matthew Koehler on 05/02/2008 at 8:52 AM

I would like to provide a fairly detailed account of the comments I made during the public comment period at this meeting in Hamilton. I believe this information will help people better understand where the WildWest Institute and other environmental groups stand on these important issues. This step is especially needed because a few anonymous posters above, and someone identifying themselves as the Big Sky Coalition’s webmaster, have said false things about our organization and our motives, all the while throwing in some juvenile name-calling that is so typical (and so tiresome) from these folks. When I was finally able to address the committee, I started off by saying that while we heard a lot today during Sen. Laible’s hand-picked agenda about how environmentalists supposedly want no work to happen in the forest and how the few lawsuits we file are the reasons for the smoke and wildfires, the committee needs to understand there is quite a bit of consensus and common ground about just how to protect homes and communities from wildfire. I urged to committee and everyone in attendance to focus on this common ground – these zones of agreement – and move forward with the work everyone agrees should be done, while we continue to debate whether “large-scale, landscape level” logging accomplished by suspending NEPA and the public appeals process will do anything to protect homes from wildfire or restore our forests. I clearly told the committee that because of limited time and resources we should focus our fuel reduction efforts where they will do most good: around our homes and communities, not in the backcountry many miles away from homes. This just makes the most sense in terms of effective protection of homes from wildfire and also in terms of helping to ensure firefighter safety. Often now days, wildland firefighters are being asked to do residential structure protection, which is a very dangerous task if homeowners and the area immediately around homes are not prepared via defensible space. Next I told the committee about all the collaborative efforts to find solutions that our organization and other environmental groups are currently involved with. This was especially important to point out because all I seemed to hear during the agenda that Sen. Laible put together was how environmental groups want nothing to happen in the forest and how lawsuits are the reasons for all the smoke and fires. Of course, Sen. Laible didn’t actually put an environmental representative in his agenda. So I mentioned that WildWest helped form FireSafe Montana ( last year and how the current president of FireSafe is Jake Kreilick, who is WildWest’s restoration coordinator. Firesafe MT works in partnership with local, state, federal agencies, and stakeholders and individuals to provide locally led conservation and fire management programs and services. I mentioned how WildWest was one of the main organizations that came together with about 35 other diverse stakeholders (including other conservationists, motorized users, outfitters, loggers, mill operators, state government and the Forest Service) to develop a set of 13 Restoration Principles to restore forests in Montana ( Next, I talked about how Cameron Naficy, our staff ecologist, is currently involved with the Bitterroot and Lolo National Forests Restoration Committee’s that are tasked with implementing these 13 Restoration Principles through specific, on-the-ground restoration projects on the Bitterroot and Lolo. I talked about how WildWest is involved with other collaborative groups that have arisen over the past few years to help move community fire protection and restoration projects forwards, including the Kootenai Forest Stakeholder Coalition, the Mineral/Sanders County Stakeholder group and an effort on the Salmon National Forest just over the pass in Idaho. I also pointed out to the committee that, specifically, the Kootenai Stakeholder group that WildWest is a part of has endorsed five fuel-reduction projects on the Kootenai NF that covers some 7,000 acres in the Wildland-Urban Interface and that these projects will produce over 16 million board feet of wood products for local mills. The committee was told it was also worth noting that these endorsements were made through a consensus process. At this point I repeated that there’s ample common ground and zones of agreement out there and that the committee should focus on this common ground rather than seriously entertain the idea that we should convince the federal government that NEPA should be suspended and the public appeals process should be suspended. Since I knew the committee was going to tour the Middle East Fork logging project the next day (a project that drew the ire of not only WildWest and Friends of the Bitterroot, but also local East Fork residents, former Forest Service workers, hunters, outfitters and a number of prominent PhD faculty from the University of Montana’s School of Forestry) I made sure to point to the committee what we supported in terms of that project. While a timber industry lobbyist, who was also at the committee hearing, had in the past falsely claimed that our group only supported the raking of pine needles from under decks, I pointed out that we supported 1,600 acres of fuel reduction work on Bitterroot NF land that would have produced 45 local jobs and pumped $1 million into the local economy, according to FS figures. Next, I directly took on the issue of lawsuits from environmental groups causing the smoke and wildfires, which again was a pretty common refrain given the way Sen. Laible set up the agenda. I asked the committee directly, “What lawsuit caused the Chippy Creek Fire? The Jocko Lakes Fire? The Black Cat Fire? The Gash Fire? The Rombo Fire? The Derby Mountain Fire?” No answer from anyone on the committee, just uncomfortable fidgeting and looks at the ground. Finally, after mentioning a few facts concerning the current state of the lumber industry (ie lowest lumber prices in history, housing bubble bursting nationally, which has caused supply to far outpace demand, and $4.25 for diesel) and pointing out how in the world do we expect receipts from logging to pay for all the restoration and fuel reduction work given these current circumstances, I respectful addressed Chairman Laible. I told Chairman Laible that as a Montana citizen and a Montana taxpayer and property owner, I believe it was his responsibility to let everyone on the committee and everyone at the hearing know that he was on the board of directors of the Big Sky Coalition. Laible’s verbatim response was included in the Indy’s column above. While the BS Coalition’s webmaster can claim that everyone knows Sen. Laible is on the BS Coalition’s board of directors, that simply not true. In fact, I spoke with members of the committee during one of the breaks and they didn’t know of Sen. Laible’s relationship to the BS Coalition or the fact that Laible essentially called his employee (Mr. LaSalle) to testify before him. In fact, at one point during the committee hearing, when Sen. Laible allowed his friend and fellow BS Coalition board member to address the committee (and blame lawsuits for the lack of biomass energy production on national forests) even though this person wasn’t on the official agenda, one of the republican members of the committee spoke up and complained that he wanted to hear from a conservation perspective at some point during this meeting. This senator also came up to me and distanced himself from the agenda and the way Sen. Laible was running the meeting. However, I agree that the main issue here is not Sen. Laible conflict of interest. I believe the issue we need to solve is how are we going to move forward with bona-fide efforts to protect our homes and communities from wildfire while we also move forward with bona-fide, scientific

Posted by Matthew Koehler on 05/02/2008 at 8:50 AM

The conflict of interest of Senator Laible is big. He should either resign from chair of the state's fire suppression interim committee or from Big Sky Coalition's Board of Directors. Why? Because the Big Sky Coalition is pushing an agenda of large-scale heavy thinning on National Forests, which is very controverisal whether you like it or not and not scientifically supported. How can Sen. Laible make unbiased decisions and objectively consider the information as chair of the fire suppression interim committee when he advocates for large-scale thinning with BSC regardless of the facts? We need to incorporate wildland fire use plans into the landscape and forget about landscape scale thinning. If fuel reduction can be done in an ecologicaly sound way in high priority areas, which it can, people can earn a living and we can utilize the biomass. However, framing the thinning in terms of reducing the risk of fire at the landscape scale is disingenuous in the first place, and horribly ironic as well. We need fire back on the landscape. And we seem to be able to agree on that. Yet when fires burn, people continue to be upset, and want to find ways to stop them. That makes no sense at all. All throughout the wildfire perimiter areas, fuel is being reduced in an incredibly complex way over millions of acres. Fire removes the fine material, the organic matter, and small trees, the highly flammable stuff. That is good! We should embrace fire as the ultimate tool of fuel reduction. If some big trees get killed because the fire burns a litte hotter, that's ok. At least they are still on the lanscape after the fire, providing habitat for all kinds of birds and wildlife, contributing to soil development and future forest productivity. There is no comparison between that and stumps, roads, weeds, and something noone is talking about. All the greenhouse gases consumed in the process of this "landscape thinning." And yes, fires release greenhouse gases, but you cannot stop that short of paving our forestlands. The greenhouse gases emissions that we can reduce are from our own activities.

Posted by DJ on 05/01/2008 at 3:36 PM

BSC Webmaster: "Senator Laible's declared relationship with BSC as a member of its board of directors is hardly a secret to anyone paying attention to the issues." It is the public, whether "paying attention" or not, which deserves and benefits from absolute conflict of interest disclosure. Any ethical official or organization, unlike Laible and BSC, will always err on the side of caution. "There was no conflict here, in my opinion." Oh, okay. If the very group which participates in and gains from the nondisclosure of conflict doesn't feel it's there, then it must not be. Create "...a provision for state and local determination of NEPA applicability..." Sorry, but that's not the way federal law should work regarding resources belonging to all Americans - it gives big industry too much opportunity to bully comparatively weaker local governments.

Posted by Lawrence on 05/01/2008 at 3:01 PM

Forest politics make fringe bedfellows

Posted by blast from past on 05/01/2008 at 1:59 PM

Mr. LaSalle's testimony in Washington and what was really proposed: here's a link to the audio file: His testmony begins at 38:00. Mr. LaSalle said "NEPA is a good law, I've used NEPA as a decision-making process. But it's being used as a hammer to delay or stop projects that are needed to protect communities. What can be done, or more specifically, what can you do?" Your statement suggesting he advocates a blanket national suspension of NEPA and project appeals conveniently omits most of what was said. You left out the parts about creating a provision for state and local determination of NEPA applicability for critical projects. And, you left out the part "The loser pays." I guess this sort of argumentum ad personam is suitable for chihuahas. As far as Senator Laible's supposed conflict, I've already noted "Senator Laible's declared relationship with BSC as a member of its board of directors is hardly a secret to anyone paying attention to the issues." There was no conflict here, in my opinion. This was a peer-level committee meeting with a public input component. Not a public rally. I feel sure there were few chihuahas in attendance and everyone in the room knew of his affiliation with BSC. Thanks for the typo fix, Lawrence. As far as my ability to ruin an "interesting discussion on environmental policy and ethical government" with a single mispelled word describing do-nothing people at the periphery of this incredibly complex issue, all I can say is sue me for pushing your button. The article as writ is hardly a discussion of the issues, it's a crude subversion of what actually took place at the meeting: involved people looking for the best, most comprehensive fire- and forest-management solutions, not more WUI band aids or human-drama sideshows.

Posted by BSC Webmaster on 05/01/2008 at 1:15 PM

BSC Webmaster: "The rest of you are chihauhas." Leave it to BSC (Big Sky Coalition) Webmaster to take an interesting discussion on environmental policy and ethical government and turn it into juvenile name-calling, and he can't even spell 'chihuahua'. I guess I'll look elsewhere for valid information.

Posted by Lawrence on 05/01/2008 at 12:09 PM

Too bad the writer (cannot call him a reporter) missed the chance to enlighten the readers about the meeting. The issues faced by the committee and citizens are very real and very life threatening - more so every year as the fires continue to get bigger while serial litigators file appeals and lawsuits. Gridlock over thinning the forests is the reason NEPA should be suspended along with appeals in order to do the necessary work to protect our residents. Next time, please writer, take notes on what is going on in the meeting not what you are told in the hall outside the committee room by a shill.

Posted by Bingo on 05/01/2008 at 11:57 AM

"Some people in Montana are focused on common-sense environmental solutions." Yes, I agree with this statement and from my perspective the environmental organizations around here are focused on common-sense solutions. Like focusing limited fuel reduction resources around homes and communities, working to get good restoration work happening and ensuring that the government agencies follow the law. The Big Sky Coalition, when recently testifying before Congress, called for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the public appeals process to be suspended. Perhaps the BSC Webmaster could explain how in the world suspending our nation's bedrock environmental law is a "common-sense environmental solution?" And furthermore, I don't see the BSC Webmaster denying anything in the column above, only throwing verbal rocks at the person who pointed out Senator Laible's conflict of interest and at the Independent for reporting on it.

Posted by Montana Jack on 05/01/2008 at 11:29 AM

In talking about the "biomass opportunity" I thought Tom Robak pointed out the obvious: we will never adequately address the many known problems of fuel reduction, at any scale, without a way to pay for thinning projects that are clearly in the best interest of all Montanans, not just some. Should we spend tax dollars to pay for thinning projects or should the private sector play a part in solving the problem by bringing a fresh approach to this very old problem? Do you think it's a sin if someone in this valley makes money from harvested biomass? We have fire and smoke because forests burn, period. Not because of litigation. But we have smoke and fire in spades because we have yet to agree on the best, most cost-effective and scientifically sound way to address a primary source of catastrophic wildfire: overgrown forests and overgrown buffer areas. As usual we're too busy pointing the finger at the other guy while the problem festers. And throwing up roadblocks as if life itself depended on it. Some people in Montana are focused on common-sense environmental solutions. The rest of you are chihauhas.

Posted by BSC Webmaster on 05/01/2008 at 11:05 AM

I'm personally glad that the guy at the meeting brought up the fact that Laible is on the board of the Big Sky Coalition. That seems like a pretty big conflict of interest. The agenda that Laible put together was terribly slanted and one-sided and included not only the Big Sky Coalition's executive director, but also included other speakers tied closely with the BSC. At one point, Laible even allowed the BSC's founder (who wasn't even on the printed agenda) to come to the podium to talk more about the opportunity to make millions on biomass energy production from public lands, if it wasn't for lawsuits. During this whole hearing, Laible played coy and basically acted as if he didn't know much about the BSC. Until he was pressed near the very end of the meeting to acknowledge to everyone his position on the BSC's board of directors. The message I took away from the meeting from all these BSC folks is that we have fires and smoke because of lawsuits and the Big Sky Coalition is telling us we need to suspend our environmental laws and public process to get the cut out and then we'll have no smoke and fires.

Posted by Montana Jack on 05/01/2008 at 10:27 AM

What exactly is Laible's personal agenda, to which you refer in the opening volley but never get around to defining? And how did Laible use his position to further it? That's some pretty angry barking you've got going there without anything apparent to back it up .....

Posted by Corvallis conservationist on 05/01/2008 at 9:57 AM

This is attack-dog journalism fed to you by a "watchdog"? Senator Laible's declared relationship with BSC as a member of its board of directors is hardly a secret to anyone paying attention to the issues. And unlike some people in western Montana who wrap themselves in environmental causes for a paycheck, he's focused on solutions. Did the writer of this hit piece even attend this meeting? "Cronyistic", "pimp" and "half-assed" are colorful adjectives most often wielded by third-rate minds barking from the sidelines. "Decorum" obviously doesn't apply to your editorial standards.

Posted by BSC Webmaster on 05/01/2008 at 9:41 AM
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