What’s the power of an advisory vote? Can you ever ignore a vote of the people?
I’m left pondering such questions as a new tactic is emerging in pockets of Idaho to substitute countywide advisory votes for the hard and time-consuming work of collaboration and coalition-building.
Last spring, Bonner County commissioners held an advisory vote, or a nonbinding vote to advise officials on what the majority of local voters support, on the proposed wilderness designation for the Scotchman Peaks, which overlook Lake Pend Oreille in North Idaho. Now it is spawning copycats: On the Nov. 6 ballot, Idaho County asks voters whether they favor more wilderness or wild river designations; and in Fremont County, voters are being asked whether they support proposed state wildlife-crossing devices to reduce roadkill and accidents near the Montana-Idaho state line.
The May 15 vote in Bonner County was a setback for a promising collaboration to protect nearly 14,000 acres in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. Sen. Jim Risch proposed the wilderness designation for Scotchman Peaks in 2016 and held two open houses that drew 600 people, about 75 percent of whom expressed support for the plan.
There’s a reason why: People love the area and want it kept the way it is. It’s been treated and managed as proposed wilderness since the 1970s, and it has broad support among industry and environmental groups. Yes, there’s skepticism among the don’t-trust-the-government populace of North Idaho. Yet the Scotchman Peaks remain prized for their beauty, famously grouchy mountain goats and unfragmented forest habitat in a region crisscrossed from decades of building roads to log its thick forests. The Idaho section connects to a similarly unfragmented section in Montana. The area is unique and valuable, which is why it has been treated as de facto wilderness.
When Bonner County voters opposed the wilderness plan 54 percent to 46 percent, Risch said he would abide by the outcome. But doing so means squandering the hard work that he and his staff invested. It also ignores the nearly half of voters in conservative Bonner County who did support the wilderness – not to mention the lovers of Scotchman Peaks in the rest of Idaho and in nearby parts of Washington and Montana who got no say.
Agreeing to accept a single advisory vote was probably Risch’s first mistake. The second was to not campaign for a plan he and his staff had worked so hard on. And the third was not addressing wild claims about the federal government. The most outrageous: Critics cited a little-known provision in law that could allow the Forest Service to ban guns in the new wilderness.
I’ve spent time in lots of Northwest wilderness areas with companions with guns and I’ve never heard of such a prohibition – and neither had most wilderness advocates or managers. Designated wildernesses are popular with hunters. Such worries could easily have been addressed by a promise to protect guns in the bill language.
But that’s not really the point. So back to my question: Does an advisory vote offer reliable advice?
The question is a sensitive one to the good people of Arco and Butte County. They tried to get the ear of Risch and his fellow lawmakers for their plan for Craters of the Moon. Advocates in and around Arco have been pushing for national park designation for Craters, a national landmark since President Calvin Coolidge created it in 1924. Backers today believe that national park status will bring more prominence and more federal dollars to managing that unique landscape, and more visitors and tourism dollars to local businesses.
Rose Bernal, the commissioner who has spearheaded that drive, is rightly puzzled by the deference to the Bonner County advisory. Challenged by Idaho’s congressional delegation to demonstrate grass-roots support for the Craters plan, she got the Idaho Association of Counties and all 44 county governments to back it. All five counties in and around Craters passed resolutions in support. And, in a 2016 advisory vote, 57 percent of Butte County voters supported the idea.
“They asked for grass roots and we gave that to them, and they didn’t listen to us,” Bernal told me earlier this year.
She even got the state Senate to pass a measure in support of the plan, but the Farm Bureau and its allies stopped Bernal’s measure in the Idaho House.
I love Craters of the Moon. If that eerie landscape were in some Eastern state, it would be probably be on that state’s license plate. To me, it’s of extraordinary natural and national value. But the question is not up to me. Nor is it up to Bernal, or even Butte County voters: It’s a national decision about the significance of a national asset owned by the nation’s citizens and managed for all of us by the federal government. Voters in one Idaho county don’t get to dictate what happens at Craters, any more than voters in one county should get a veto over the future of Scotchman Peaks or the Clearwater River watershed, where a years-long collaborative effort is working out timber and environmental issues.
Local input and opinion are a vital, but single, factor in making decisions about whether a federal landscape merits the protection and prominence that federal wilderness or park status convey.
That’s what troubles me, as sensible and democratic as advisory votes appear at first glance.
And now they’re a trend: Critics of wilderness, or wild rivers, or wildlife underpasses, can hold an advisory vote and threaten to blow up months or years of study and collaboration.
It’s especially discouraging because Idaho is showing the nation how competing interests actually can work through their differences on testy land use and environmental issues. While other states have been gridlocked, lawmakers from Idaho have demonstrated how to build coalitions and compromises while addressing economic, forestry and ranching concerns.
The Owyhee wildernesses in the desert of Southern Idaho and the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness in the mountains of Central Idaho wouldn’t exist today if backers had started by putting their ideas to countywide votes. Knowing that, lawmakers and their staff, and local officials, and ranchers and residents and wilderness advocates built local, regional and national coalitions for their ideas. Sen. Mike Crapo worked eight years to get the Owyhees in 2009; it took Rep. Mike Simpson 15 years on the Boulder-White Clouds. They met and they met; they wrote and rewrote their bills. They worked to win support and shape public opinion. Without that investment of time, energy and political capital, we’d be poorer as a state and a nation today.
Idaho knows how to identify issues and work toward compromise, how to build trust, credibility and buy-in over time. It will be a tragedy if the Idaho way on working through federal land issues is sacrificed to county-by-county vetoes on matters of transcendent state and national significance.