Rocky Barker: A novel idea for Yellowstone's Zone of Death

rbarker@idahostatesman.comMay 26, 2014 

Fans of Wyoming mystery writer C.J. Box call it the Zone of Death. We call it Idaho's Yellowstone.

The 50-square-mile strip of America's first national park that lies within Fremont County has lakes and hot springs and waterfalls and a legal status that makes it the perfect location for the perfect crime.

That was the premise for Box's excellent best-seller "Free Fire," published in 2007. Former Wyoming Game Warden Joe Pickett is hired by the governor to track down and make the case against an attorney who murders four campers in the Idaho strip of Yellowstone.

The lawyer excuses his crime using the argument advanced by Michigan State law professor Brian Kalt. Since all of Yellowstone is under federal and not state jurisdiction, Kalt argued that a person charged with a crime in Idaho's Yellowstone could use his Sixth Amendment right to demand a jury trial in the state and district where the crime occurred. Since no one lives in Idaho's Yellowstone, a jury could not be organized. So, Kalt argued, the defendant must be freed.

Kalt has tried to get Congress to fix this loophole since 2007, but he ran into indifference from the Justice Department and higher priorities from folks in Congress, according to a story last week by the online news magazine Vox.

The fancies of lawyers aside, part of the reason the issue is so dicey is that Yellowstone falls within the relatively conservative 10th U.S. Circuit Court District. Idaho lies in the relatively liberal 9th Circuit. Wyoming Republicans, who have examined the issue, worried that if they did something to cure the death zone problem, they might open up a venue for environmentalists to take Yellowstone Park cases to the 9th Circuit.

I called Lindsay Nothern, communication director for Idaho Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo. He said Crapo's office looked into the issue earlier and got little help from the Department of Justice.

After the Vox article, which included language that Kalt says would close the loophole but keep other cases out of the 9th Circuit, Nothern said Crapo might look at the issue again.

"It behooves us to talk to Idaho law enforcement officials and judicial experts to see what a solution should be," Nothern said.

Part of the challenge for Crapo or anyone else to get action is that the problem is only in theory - at least so far. Even after Box's book took off, Fremont County officials tell me, they haven't seen a flood of lawbreakers heading into the Zone of Death to commit crimes.

Another challenge is that most people ignore Idaho's Yellowstone - not just the slice within the park but the remarkable landscape next door. Most of the 1.2 million people who go into Yellowstone through its western entrance do go through Idaho, but they don't stop long enough even to buy gas.

The tiny community of Ashton struggles for economic survival, despite having Yellowstone and Mesa Falls on its doorstep. That's one of the arguments in favor of a caldera national monument that could include much of the Caribou-Targhee's Island Park Ranger District - which no longer has even a ranger station.

A national monument in eastern Idaho could make people want to stop for a day to see its wonders. It could even increase traffic at the Idaho Falls Airport.

Environmentalists also want to protect the area's underground connections to Yellowstone's geysers. Just this month, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt identified the area as one that the Obama administration should protect under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

Of course, Congress could protect the area under a collaborative process developed by locals - and generate interest in the area among more than novelists and legal scholars.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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