The following interview took place in March 2012, between Lucas Baumbach and Idaho State Representative Phil Hart, an engineer with an MBA from UPenn’s Wharton Business School.
Interviewer: What is the most important point that people don’t understand about your timber case?
Phil Hart: That before any logging occurred, I researched the law to make sure it was legal. I had been told by a timber landowner that one could take timber for their own personal use off of state land. And, at that point there had never been a court case, where someone had gone to court for taking live trees off state land for personal use.
Interviewer: Have you had anyone call you a thief to your face?
Phil Hart: No.
Interviewer: What do people say to you?
Phil Hart: Nobody has addressed the issue to me directly. I hear things second hand. At least from those who are concerned about it. And, it doesn’t seem to cross people’s mind that when this was in court it was civil case not criminal. As a civil case, I could have settled out of court, keeping my court record clear. But, I fought it, because I thought I was right. The prosecutor didn’t charge me, and said to my attorney, “I think Hart is right, and I am not going to touch this case with a ten-foot pole.”
Interviewer: In short what does the code say?
Phil Hart: Several places in the Idaho Code it exempts from regulation people who take timber for their own personal use. It further says that when you do that you do not have to notify the state.
Interviewer: By personal use, could it mean just firewood not live trees?
Phil Hart: No, the state has a permit process for firewood, which is delineated in its regulations. However, several places in the Idaho Code refers to taking live trees for one’s personal use.
Interviewer: So, according to your research any Idahoan can legally harvest trees, as long as he’s not doing so for resale?
Phil Hart: You can’t use the word “harvest”, because that word is defined specifically referring to forest products as a commercial use of timber. For personal use you would call it “taking of trees,” not harvesting. I believe any Idahoan can do this, but the court ruled differently in my civil case. And, in all of Idaho history, including the surrounding states, my court case was the first to litigate this set of facts. When a court hears a new type of case for the first time, there should never be an award of attorney fees to either party.
Interviewer: How was your lawsuit initiated?
Phil Hart: In 1996 the Department of Lands sent me a letter demanding I pay triple the value of the logs, because I did not get a permit, or sign a contract to take the logs. My attorney wrote back and offered that I would pay their demand, if they would produce a sample copy of the permit or contract that they had referred to in their letter. They never produced the permit or contract, nor does any such permit or contract exist or was ever authorized by any statute or regulation.
Interviewer: Did the court award attorney fees in your case?
Phil Hart: Yes, the court said my case had no foundation and was “frivolous.” But,the state changed the regulations that I relied on, after my court case was over. Why did the regulations change, if my case had no foundation?
Interviewer: Why do you think the code says you can take trees without notification?
Phil Hart: Because taking trees off state land was a common practice among Idahoans from the beginning of the State’s history. A retired logger I know signed an affidavit for my case stating that this was common practice during his years as a logger and that he knew many
people in his community that did exactly that, including himself.
Interviewer: Is it true that you tried to buy timber from a landowner, who told you to get free timber off state land?
Phil Hart: Yeah, that’s what happened. And, he talked himself out of a sale. If he hadn’t told me that, I would have bought his trees from him.
Interviewer: Can you tell me names of community leaders that have told you they were surprised you couldn’t do this? If so, how many and what did they tell you?
Phil Hart: I am not going to name names, just like I didn’t turn over the names of those who bought my book, Constitutional Income. In fact, I didn’t actually cut the trees down, one of the guys who helped build the house did. And I never gave up his name either. But, just a couple days ago a leader came up to me, and told me he knew it was okay because everyone did it in his area. His opinion was that the media is just using the issue to beat me up. Another official told me he had a close friend that built an entire house recently using logs from state land. That person was sure it was entirely legal. Another public official said that 25 years ago he was going to take trees off of state land for building a home for himself, but bought a house instead. He too thought it was completely legal.
Interviewer: How did the ethics panel punish you for legally taking trees off state land?
Phil Hart: The process was media driven. The ethics panel didn’t find any probable cause, but felt pressured to do something. They never determined that I abused my legislative duties, because the trees were cut down in 1996. My first session in the legislature was 2005.
Interviewer: Would you do it again?
Phil Hart: This is not a hill I want to die on. In 2005 a friend of mine, after being told he couldn’t do it, found the law and forced the forest service to give him a $50 permit so he could cut trees for his home. He and a forest service employee marked the trees together, then he took them. Like him I asked, in 1995, the forest service whether they permitted cutting trees for personal use on forest service lands, and they said, “We used to do that, but we don’t do that anymore.” In hindsight, I now know that was a lie. The law allowing this has been on the books since 1897, and will remain on the books until repealed by Congress.
Interviewer: Any final thoughts?
Phil Hart: These issues are a little complex. But, the media operates at a sound byte level. It takes a little homework to understand the issue. It requires reading the code. The definition of “harvesting,” which excludes the personal use of timber, is
important. And, the regulations actually state in black and white that one does not need to notify the state, when they are taking trees for their personal use. The Idaho Code also states that its purpose is to harmonize and make uniform state, federal and local laws. “Harmonize” means to standardize everything, and the United State’s Code states that one may use timber off of Forest Service land free of charge for their own personal use.