Letters From the West

Quixotic campaigns can change reality in rural Idaho

People wait to speak at an Interim Committee on Public Lands hearing.

People wait to speak at an Interim Committee on Public Lands hearing.

A line of speakers took to the microphone Wednesday at the Capitol to express their frustration with the way federal land policy has left rural Idaho, especially in forest country.

Most of these folks’ remedy mirrored a Idaho Legislature resolution demanding the federal government transfer most of the public land to Idaho. Some, like Jeff Wright, hope they can convince the state to go to court to make this a reality.

He shared his vision, which went further than most, including eventually selling off much of the land so Idaho’s rural economy can thrive like eastern states have. Most just think the state can do a better job, which they viewed as cutting more timber and dramatically reducing wildfire.

Earlier testimony to the Legislature’s Interim Committee on Public Lands, from Idaho Deputy Attorney General Steve Strack and even an attorney who support the idea suggest the chance of the legal victory is slim. Coming up with the cost of the transition — $2 billion – over 20 years according to economist Evan Hjerpe, was compared with the challenge of going to the moon by transfer proponent Jim Chmelik, Idaho County County Commissioner.

It’s easy to dismiss the entire two-year campaign to make this happen as another quixotic repeat of the Sagebrush Rebellion and past efforts for state takeover. But I think back to a campaign on the other side that started in the 1980s seeking to protect the Northern Rockies.

Two Montanans, Mike Bader, a former Yellowstone ranger and Cass Chinske, then a Missoula city councilman were bitter about wilderness and timber politics of the time. They didn’t like the Montana wilderness bill their senator sponsored and it was vetoed by President Reagan in the 1980s anyway.

Bader and Chinske wanted to change political reality. They put together a massive wilderness bill that included all the areas conservationists wanted protected across the region, 15 million acres.

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act also protected linkage zones for wildlife and proposed a massive fish and wildlife habitat restoration program. Aided by the star power of Grammy-winning, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer-songwriter Carole King, they attracted bipartisan and hundreds of co-sponsors in Congress.

Alas, even with Democrats holding both Houses of Congress and King’s friend Nancy Pelosi as speaker, the bill went nowhere.

Mike Bader, now a blues singer who plays throughout the region he sought to protect, says he sometimes runs into conservationists who call his Northern Rockies effort a failure.

‘“You people never accomplished anything,”’ Bader recounts.

But today most of the areas the bill sought to protect are managed to protect grizzlies, bull trout, salmon and steelhead. The Clinton Roadless rule protects 8 million acres of roadless in Montana and and more than 8 million in Idaho is protected by a separate, state-written roadless rule.

Bader, Chinske and King can’t take all the credit but their vision was picked up by a lot of people nationwide leading to the place we are today.

The Idaho Forest Partnership, which includes environmentalists and timber industry foresters released a report this week that says the logging and restoration work that is going on across the region is due in part to the roadless rule and the new reality.

So lawmakers and tea partiers who are trying to get the forest lands either turned over to the state or managed by the state may not be able to get the lawsuit or legislation they seek. But they may change reality in a way that reshapes rural Idaho and forest policy the way Bader and Chinske did in 1989.

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