Head of Idaho think tank retires

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Jay O'Laughlin doesn't believe in permanent solutions.

After spending the past 25 years explaining complex natural resources to lawmakers, O'Laughlin became the go-to source on some of Idaho's most divided issues. But as the head of the University of Idaho's Policy Analysis Group steps into retirement, O'Laughlin says it was never his mission to resolve the challenges brought before him.

"It's the nature of the issues," he said in a telephone interview after recently retiring to Florida. "Resolving something as big as, for example, what to do with management of federal lands is rarely going to happen with one decision."

Idaho may be known for its potatoes, but the state's fishing, untamed landscape and rare wildlife are beloved by its citizens. Yet, O'Laughlin acknowledges there is little agreement on how best to manage natural resources.

"What you want from a forest, what you want from rangelands is going to influence your perspective on that issue," he said.

O'Laughlin says he took a risk becoming the director of one Idaho's few state-funded think tanks back in 1989. He left a tenured position at Texas A&M University to lead a group state lawmakers were unsure they would provide funding for long-term.

His first task - assigned from an advisory board compiled of university, industry and conservation groups - pitted him against a lawmaker pushing a bill that would allow multiple uses on state endowment lands. Unlike most public lands, such as national forests, Idaho's 2.5 million acres of endowment lands are constitutionally required to be managed to provide the most financial return to Idaho's public schools.

For three months, O'Laughlin compiled a lengthy report outlining the history and differences between public lands and endowment lands. However, he was careful not to include a recommendation along with his report. It was a calculation that would become a standard in his office.

"We presented our report and the gentleman pulled his bill," O'Laughlin said. "Right out of the shoot, we would call that a success. Some people would call that a failure because they wanted to see that land treated such as federal lands. But that would have provided standing to sue."

O'Laughlin's reports have covered everything from the impacts of increased wildfire activity to protecting sage grouse habitat. Most recently, he completed a report analyzing how much it would cost Idaho if it were to take over management of federally managed lands.

The report was then handed to the Idaho legislative committee tasked with studying the pros and cons of taking over federal lands, where they have since cooled their zeal of demanding that the federal government release control of its public lands.

O'Laughlin'a tenure wasn't without criticism.

In 1991, The Lewiston Tribune published an editorial called "Is UI think tank to be scholar or streetwalker?" The editorial claimed that the group was giving special access to industry representatives.

The group has since changed its approach by advertising its advisory board meetings and inviting more outside voices to the committee.

Yet it was O'Laughlin's respectful approach while working with all sides of the issues that eventually made him one of the most respected individuals in the state, said Kurt Pregitzer, dean of University of Idaho's College of Natural Resources.

"Jay was a fantastic person to work with. Very professional with everyone, very honest and extremely talented," Pregitzer said.

Pregitzer said they are currently looking for "the next Jay" to fill the spot.

John Robinson, public lands director with the Idaho Conservation League, says he appreciated O'Laughlin's leadership but now could be a time to reflect on the group's mission.

"Jay provided good leadership over the years but I think Jay did have a particular perspective," he said.

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