Letters From the West

Idaho’s federal land debate as it was in 1905

President Roosevelt talks with his Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Photo

I looked backed at the writings between Idaho’s Republican Senator Weldon Heyburn and President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 about Idaho’s forest reserves to prepare for the covering the Idaho Legislature’s Interim Committee on Federal Lands Friday at 9 a.m. at the Capitol.

These two Republicans had clear differences about the value of the reserves and their role in American life. Heyburn saw the reserves as an affront to the state’s ability to choose the remaining 50,000 acres the federal government promised it would get under the Admissions Act.

At statehood in 1890, Idaho received federal grants of 3.65 million acres but it took a few years to identify all the lands it wanted. Today the state has 2.46 million acres.

“I am not opposed to creating forest reserves for proper purposes, but I insist that they should be created upon the ground and not upon the maps; that is, from information obtained on the ground, and not by drawing lines upon the map,” Heyburn wrote Roosevelt in 2004. “I also submit that they should be created only after full and thorough consultation with those representing the state.”

He also saw it has limiting the settlement and growth of the state at a time when homesteaders could get 160 acres by simply clearing it. Roosevelt did not view the people who were claiming the forest lands and selling them to speculators as the same as those making claims in agricultural areas.

“He is not the man who tills the soil, builds the home, and brings permanent prosperity to the region,” Roosevelt said in his letter of June 13, 1905. “This is the man who skins the country and moves on.”

Idaho’s other U.S. Senator, Fred T. DuBois, expressed the views of southern Idaho farm communities who liked the reserves because they protected the flows in the rivers that were their lifeblood. Issues over mining and grazing had already been resolved and ranchers realize that the reserves prevented their grazing lands from being taken over by homesteaders.

“Forest reserves and irrigation go hand in hand, you can not separate one from the other,” DuBois said. “The trouble with my colleague. Senator Heyburn, is, I think, that
he is making a fight based upon conditions which do not now exist.”

The biggest problem Heyburn and Idaho Gov. Frank Gooding had with their fellow Republican Roosevelt is they felt his executive decision establishing the forest reserves, now the state’s national forests, was that the outcome of TR’s land review was pre-ordained.

In 1907, Heyburn tried to block Roosevelt from creating new reserves with an amendment on a spending bill that  required congressional approval. Before Roosevelt signed the bill he created 16 million acres of new reserves including many in Idaho.

Boise State University political science professor John Freemuth said that’s how he felt when he served on the Idaho Federal Lands Task Force in the late 1990s. He quit when the panel refused to include the national interest in these lands in their proposals.

That’s why he hopes the current interim committee includes a look at the collaborations going on around the state.

“Collaboration is not pre-ordained,” Freemuth said.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West