Letters from the West

Park status for Craters of the Moon? Idaho Farm Bureau still doesn’t like the idea

What’s in a name? Arco-area backers would like to see the Craters of the Moon National Monument become a national park, encouraging more tourists to make it a destination and boost local economies.
What’s in a name? Arco-area backers would like to see the Craters of the Moon National Monument become a national park, encouraging more tourists to make it a destination and boost local economies. Statesman file

What does no change in management mean?

That’s one of the questions the Idaho Farm Bureau asks in its quest to kill the effort by Butte County residents and leaders to keep Arco from blowing away.

Butte County Commissioners Rose Bernal and Seth Beal and Arco chiropractor Helen Merrill are seeking a bill that would simply change the name of Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve to Craters of the Moon National Park and Preserve. They don’t want to make Craters bigger, or do anything differently.

Backers want only to change its status. Right now, it’s a place people stop to visit on their way to somewhere else. As a national park, it could be a destination. Changing the name, they say, will increase visitation and get more people to visit Butte County, Arco, Carey and other small towns near the otherworldly landscape made famous by explorer, writer and conservationist “two-gun” Bob Limbert.

But the Idaho Farm Bureau has stubbornly opposed the proposal, even though many of its backers, like Beal and Lincoln County Commissioner Rebecca Wood, are farmers. The bureau raised the threat that changing the name might give the National Park Service, which already manages the Craters monument, the power to stop shipments of hay through the area on U.S. 20.

Idaho Department of Transportation district engineer Jason Minzghor fueled the road controversy, saying Yellowstone National Park had indeed stopped all but weed-free hay shipments through the park. And he pointed to a federal judge’s decision to stop megaloads on U.S. 12 through the federally designated wild-and-scenic river corridor along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers.

So, the hardy bunch from Butte County worked with its county prosecutor, Steve Stephens, and dug up the truth.

They found a proclamation signed in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that transferred the land under and around the highway to Idaho. We own U.S. 20 outright.

That’s unlike the roads in Yellowstone, which was established before Idaho, Wyoming and Montana even became states. It’s also different than U.S. 12, which was built with an easement on national forest land.

At a meeting at the Statehouse on Wednesday, Minzghor acknowledged that Idaho owns the road and that if the boundaries remain the same as the current national monument and preserve, there won’t be a problem for hay shippers since there isn’t one now. Plus there’s this: Representatives for Idaho’s congressional delegation said the lawmakers could write specific language into the bill to ensure that the road remains open to all who use it now.

With national park supporters having resolved the Farm Bureau’s concern, is the organization ready to get on board?

No, said its lobbyist, Russ Hendricks.

Hendricks told the groups of supporters and lawmakers Wednesday that Farm Bureau opposition is rooted in distrust of the federal government.

Even if only the name is changed and nothing else happens right away, a future Congress could do something else, said Hendricks. Attracting more people to Craters also could attract more of preservationists, who might want to protect other things.

Hendricks used the example of how an agreement that brought in bighorn sheep to Hells Canyon 10 years later put a sheep rancher out of business. Ranchers believed they would be allowed to continue herding and putting out salt using four-wheelers in the Owyhee wilderness, but the Bureau of Land Management told them they can’t.

Then there are the Gateway high-power transmission line routes through Southern Idaho and the Morley Nelson Birds of Prey Conservation Area, which were drawn by a collaborative local group and ended up being nixed in Washington, D.C.

So you can never trust the federal agencies, or the Idaho congressional delegation, to make sure the Farm Bureau gets everything it wants.

Some of these criticisms are fair, even if the conspiracy theories aren’t. But Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo is working on fixing the Owyhee wilderness issue, with follow-up legislation that has the support of even the Wilderness Society. The Gateway saga is not over, and the final transmission routes still could go back to the way the local partners sketched them.

John Freemuth, executive director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State, offers a calmer perspective. If Congress says changing the name doesn’t change management, only Congress can change that. That means hunters will continue to be able to go into the preserve the way they can now.

The laundry list of fears and unknowns the Farm Bureau raises mystifies the professor, who has written books about federal land management.

“It’s like (they’re saying) what if aliens land here,” said Freemuth.

The Farm Bureau obstinacy is frustrating for the supporters of the name change. They asked Butte County voters whether they support Craters of the Moon National Park and Preserve, and 57 percent voted yes in an advisory vote in 2016.

They also got support from Idaho Gov. Butch Otter this week.

They love farming. They want to help their farm communities by using tourism to augment their local economy and hold on to the basic services that keep small towns, and farm economies, together: things such as good schools, a remarkably healthy Lost River Medical Center and a retail center.

Commissioner Bernal, owner of the Bargain Barn gas station in Arco, knows the struggles all too well.

“We’re trying to survive in Idaho,” she said. “Help us help ourselves.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker