Letters from the West

Here’s what Idaho’s city dwellers have to say about their rural neighbors

Rebecca Frazier and her daughters, Savannah, 7, center, and Jessy, 5, delivered donations to help Owyhee County firefighters and ranchers on the Soda Fire in August 2015.
Rebecca Frazier and her daughters, Savannah, 7, center, and Jessy, 5, delivered donations to help Owyhee County firefighters and ranchers on the Soda Fire in August 2015. kjones@idahostatesman.com

The juxtaposition between urban and wild Idaho is one of the things that makes living here so special.

So it comes as little surprise that a recent report by the University of Idaho shows widespread support from Treasure Valley residents for our rural neighbors. The report, Social and Community Assessment for Owyhee County, shows that despite the 91 percent growth in Ada County and the 109 percent growth in Canyon County over the past 25 years, residents of Ada, Canyon and Elmore counties still like ranchers and other people whose lives are tied to agriculture.

That survey confirms the findings of a poll by Boise State School of Public Service in October. Treasure Valley residents said agriculture was the Valley’s most important economic sector. They expressed great concern over loss of farmland and the decline of family farms, and said they would rather preserve farmland than see affordable housing built.

Perhaps the only people who are surprised by such reports are ranchers themselves, who often feel invaded by people with different values and political views. The U of I survey also shows strong support for hunting, fishing, mountain biking and horseback riding among the 450 respondents, including those from ultra-rural Owyhee County.

But it didn’t ask how those rural Idahoans support the policies that urban communities will need to manage the growth that is expected to bring the Treasure Valley population to 1 million people by 2030. It’s those rural residents who in the Idaho Legislature have fought efforts to allow cities and counties to institute local-option sales taxes to pay for better mass transit options and other urban services.

Still, the study shows that the collaborative efforts led by Owyhee County’s commissioners have paid off. Since 2001, the Owyhee Initiative has brought together ranchers, local officials, conservation groups, the Shoshone Paiute tribe and others to pass federal legislation protecting wilderness, wild rivers and the ranching economy. It created a remarkable dialogue that reached far beyond the participants to build trust, understanding and respect for our common values.

As with the rest of the nation, politics are often quite polarized here. The Owyhee Initiative was born out of the effort by environmental groups to protect the Owyhee Canyonlands as a national monument in 2000.

It came during a continuing legal fight between the ranchers and the Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group that wants to end livestock grazing on public land in the West. But people like The Wilderness Society’s Craig Gehrke in Boise and rancher Brenda Richards in Owyhee County now have ties that withstand what could otherwise be crippling differences.

“That this region sustains such a high degree of cohesion amid so much social change is a significant finding in contrast to what many studies in the West have documented in energy ‘boom towns’ or other rapid-growth contexts,” said J.D. Wulfhorst, lead author of the report.

Support for livestock grazing ran close to 90 percent among Owyhee County residents, and nearly 80 percent among residents of Ada, Canyon and Elmore counties.

“Owyhee County leaders and residents should take solace in that many of those neighbors across the region — rural and urban counterparts alike — do perceive the risks and challenges and the benefits of living on and in a working landscape such as the Owyhees,” the report said.

The report was jointly funded by the Owyhee County Commission, USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and University of Idaho Extension and conducted by the University of Idaho Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology. Residents of the four-county area were polled via a random sample of phone numbers, including land and cell phones. The report had a margin of error of 6 percent to 7.5 percent.

It’s easy to see how ranchers might doubt that urban residents care about their values, when ranchers see their livelihoods threatened by lawsuits and grazing restrictions to protect water quality and wildlife.

But surveys aren’t the only proof. Ranchers saw an outpouring of support after the 280,000-acre Soda Fire in 2015 burned through many ranchers’ grazing lands. Residents donated 200 tons of hay, $150,000 in cash donations and 40,000 pounds of grass seed, along with truckloads of food and water for firefighters.

“Everyone came together to help each other out after the fire,” said Kelly Aberasturi, chairman of the commission. “That was a good thing to see. People in the entire Treasure Valley wanted to do something to help.”

Of course they did. That’s what neighbors do.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker