Letters From the West

Shutdown shows how much Americans love our public land

Idaho's breathtaking Boulder-White Cloud Mountains. (Idaho Statesman file photo)

Idaho’s breathtaking Boulder-White Cloud Mountains. (Idaho Statesman file photo)

If there is one lesson from the 16-day federal shutdown it’s that Americans love their public land.

People from both sides of the partisan divide were angry when the were cut off access to the places where they love to hunt, camp, drive, hike, bike, paddle, play, work and get away. No where was this more obvious than in the West.

“This goes right back to what Wallace Stegner said that westerners so much cherish our public land because it represents our freedom,” said John Freemuth, a former park ranger and now a professor of political science at Boise State University.

For most people the shutdown was neither partisan or ideological. I spoke with students on the bus Thursday and mentioned the shutdown ended.

They barely knew it happened. But Fall is a busy time for many Idahoans who like me headed into the fields and forests and waterways to hunt.

The rules have gotten a lot more complicate than they used to be but hunters were forced by the shutdown to find out whether their favorite place was open. Some of the campgrounds they used were closed and even boat landings were barricaded in some incidences.

These barriers angered many on the right who viewed it as a political move to make the shutdown as painful as possible. “Apparently the ‘Federal’ lands/ facilities are not true public lands/ property after all, but rather are the bureaucracy’s property,” said Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt of Kooskia.

But other Idahoans were equally angry that House Republicans, who triggered the shutdown when they forced their leadership to draw the line at de-funding or delaying Obamacare. These House members, including Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, were saying as late as Thursday their leaders should simply have raised the debt ceiling and kept the shutdown in place.

That would have extended the impacts, including those to sawmill owner Brad Jensen of Ovid. Jensen blamed both sides.

But he said the Forest Service’s decision to shutdown his logging operation showed why the Idaho Legislature’s resolution demanding the federal government turnover its land to Idaho makes sense.

John T. Reuter, executive director of Conservation Voters For Idaho takes away a completely different message from the shutdown. He points to Utah paying $1.7 million to keep its canyonland parks open for 10 days as an example of how much it costs to manage public lands, a cost he doesn’t think Idaho can afford.

But Utah paid it because its canyonland parks are worth $100 million in income for October alone.

“It shows you in clear fiscal terms that public lands have value to the states they are in,” Reuter said.

Economists are estimating the U.S. economy lost $24 billion during the 16-day shutdown. That may include the thousands of dollars that Jensen lost when he had to pull his crew from the woods a week ago, the payroll they lost and the added costs for going back in.

Jensen is convinced that Idaho would come out ahead, especially for its school children, if the state were to take over the public lands and harvest timber like it did in the 1970s and 1980s.

But Reuter said the recent Congressional Research Service report, which showed the federal government spent $392 million to manage 32 million acres in Idaho, along with Utah recent experience, shows Idaho could not afford it. It would be forced to sell it.

“The Idaho proposal would close public lands to the public not just for two weeks, but forever.”

I don’t know who is right but I know few would support selling off Idaho’s crown jewels.

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.

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