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Leaders of loggers’ group asked to step down

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The couple who were instrumental in establishing the Bitterroot Valley pro-logging group Timber Workers United have stepped down as president and secretary after being advised to “take the moral high road” and detach themselves from the group.

Bob and Debra Walker, who own and operate a timber company in Darby, found themselves at odds with their own community after they took part in a court-ordered mediation over the controversial post-fire logging project in the Bitterroot and signed a non-violence agreement.

In a letter to the Independent, the Walkers detailed their reasons for bowing out. In it, the Walkers “apologized” for their part in successfully negotiating a 55 to 60 million board-foot timber sale with environmentalists and the Forest Service last February.

The negotiation, which resulted in more harvestable timber than area loggers have seen in years, was still unpopular with members of Timber Workers United, who found fault with the Walkers for sitting down at the negotiating table with environmentalists.

Debra Walker says the resignation letter, tinged with equal parts anger and sarcasm, reflects more surprise and disappointment with her colleagues in the Bitterroot Valley logging community. “They’ve been coming down on us from the beginning,” she says. “I don’t know what they wanted us to do.”

Walker says her husband was ordered by the federal court to participate in the settlement. He could have left 10 minutes after the two-day negotiations began because other participants almost immediately granted his company a timber sale. But he stayed, she says, because he felt someone needed to represent the timber industry.

The criticism and harassment continued when the Walkers signed a non-violence agreement that had been circulating around the Bitterroot Valley after one local environmentalist was allegedly surrounded, spit on and threatened by loggers as he sat in his car at Bitterroot National Forest headquarters last November. Walker says that by signing the agreement she was merely affirming her group’s willingness to abide by the law.

The final indignity came when several members of Timber Workers United met with Sen. Conrad Burns (R–Mont.) without the Walkers’ knowledge and misrepresented their statements to Burns.

Timber Workers United has since named a new president, Todd Ruark, whose father, Calvin Ruark, is its spokesman. Calvin Ruark declined to respond to Walker’s statements. “We apologize for their resignation,” he says. “We’ll go on as a group, and we’re not going to get involved in small-town politics and that’s just the way it is.”

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