Rocky Barker: Past, present and future collide in rural Idaho counties

May 19, 2014 

Thompson Creek has a proposal before the Bureau of Land Management to expand its molybdenum mine near Clayton into a new part of the mine's ore body.

If the BLM doesn't approve the expansion, the company will extract enough to get through the end of 2014 and then shut down.

In a separate action, the company is seeking a trade: the surface BLM land above its ore body in exchange for a gorgeous ranch along the Salmon River. The land trade would make Thompson Creek's mining easier.

There is no local opposition to the mine expansion. But there is opposition to the land exchange.

Specifically, some Custer County residents fear the loss of one acre of ag land in a county that has long depended on ranching for its bread and butter.

Many of the same people oppose some practices by a few of the younger and more progressive ranchers. This new generation wants to make businesses more sustainable, more nimble and better able to adjust to issues such as endangered species and water quality protection.

To do that, they grant long-term water leases that put water back in rivers to help fish while still preserving its ag use. Some ranchers also would like to be able to retire their low-quality federal range, especially if someone is willing to pay them to do it.

Environmentalists aren't standing in their way. It's these ranchers' neighbors and Western livestock groups that want to draw a line in the sand to protect a way of life from change.

In Central Idaho, so much of the debate about a proposed national monument in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains is about the fear of change. Whether the monument goes forward or is passed over, Central Idaho - like much of the rural West - will continue to face changes.

Just to the north of Custer County is Lemhi County, where Robert Cope will be a commissioner for another seven months. The veterinarian shares the traditional values and views of his neighbors when it comes to federal intrusions, endangered species and grazing policy. He opposes the national monument, though it is not in his county.

But Cope and Lemhi County, generally, have not sat back and let change happen to them.

Cope was a critical player in the Idaho roadless agreement, which acknowledged the value of the state's roadless national forest and allowed for timber cutting in areas around communities. He has been active in the Salmon Valley Stewardship group, which developed 140 projects from 2008 to 2013 in Custer and Lemhi counties to restore forests and improve river health.

These projects, according to the Montana research group Headwaters Economics, generate an average annual output of 70 jobs and $9.1 million in total value. That makes restoration work about half the size of the two-county region's manufacturing sector, with its 181 jobs, and slightly larger than the wholesale trade sector of 87 jobs. Cope is quick to point out that such projects won't become sustainable until the logs and fiber that come from the projects pay for the work.

What makes Lemhi's future brighter is that Cope's vision fits with conservationists in his community, who see a future for mining, ranching, logging and tourism as long as values such as clean water, fish and wildlife are respected, too.

As Custer County ponders a monument, a mine and a land swap, its residents would benefit from developing their own common vision for the future and not just drawing lines to try to hold on to the past. The county leaders' meetings with neighboring Blaine County might be a good start.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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