Letters from the West

Outdoor lovers converge on Capitol to rally for Idaho public lands

On Idaho Day, a diverse lineup of Idahoans will speak at Saturday’s rally for public lands at the Capitol expected to attract more than 1,000 outdoor enthusiasts from around the state.

Speakers include: Martin Hackworth, executive director of Sharetrails/Blue Ribbon Coalition, a group of motorized users that represents 7,000 Idahoans; Yvette Tuell, a Shoshone-Bannock tribal member; Ryan Callaghan, director of conservation for First Lite, a hunting clothing manufacturer based in Idaho; Luke Nelson, a Patagonia ambassador from southeast Idaho; Jimmy Hallyburton, a mountain biker and former wildlands firefighter; and Rialin Flores, event organizer and member of Idahoans for Public Lands.

“We want to see hunters and hikers, climbers and bird-watchers, mountain bikers and OHV owners. We want to see everybody who spends time in the outdoors,” said Rob Thornberry, Idaho representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership from Idaho Falls. “Idaho’s public lands are a treasure, and we want to show our support for them.”

Idaho is 62 percent federal public land, including lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. Another 2.4 million acres are state endowment lands, and together they have become a major economic driver for the state.

Outdoor recreation contributes $6.3 billion worth of economic activity in Idaho annually, with $2.2 billion of that direct sales and services. Idaho has 37,000 jobs tied to outdoor recreation.

And outdoor recreation has other power. On Feb. 16, the businesses that sponsor the outdoor industry’s largest trade show, Outdoor Retailer, decided that Salt Lake City won’t host its 2018 markets after its legislature, governor and congressional delegation asked President Trump to revoke the designation of the Bear’s Ear National Monument. The shows brought in $45 million hosting companies like Black Diamond, Patagonia, The North Face and REI and attracting thousands of people from around the world.

[Read our story: Outdoor retailers pull their show from Utah, a shot heard all around the West]

Polls show a majority Idahoans liked the idea of state takeover of federal lands especially Republicans — until they learn the true cost. Republican Congressman Mike Simpson estimates that the process of transferring and managing the land would cost the state a half-billion dollars annually if it somehow happened.

But especially since last year when the Wilks Brothers, two billionaires from Texas, purchased 172,000 acres of forest land in southern and central Idaho and kicked out hunters, loggers and other recreation users from lands long open, public opinion has been shifting.

“Unfortunately, many state-owned lands have been sold into private ownership and are posted ‘No trespassing,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, government relations director for the Idaho Conservation League. “Whether you’re a mountain-biker, an angler, a snowmobiler or a hiker, those lands are gone forever. We need to work together to ensure that we don’t see our public lands sold off to the highest bidder.”

The Idaho Legislature has examined the possible takeover or transfer of federal lands since 2012. It concluded that the state would be better working collaboratively with people from across the political spectrum to improve public lands management than continuing a fight that attorneys generals across the West say can’t be won in court.

“As citizens of the United States, public land is our birthright,” said the BlueRibbon Coalition’s Hackworth. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s a source of national pride and something I’m not eager to surrender.”

Utah also appears to be backing away from filing a court challenge to force land transfer. Some hope that Congress will give states control over the public lands in pilot projects like Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador and Sen. Jim Risch propose. Others, like Simpson, say that public land management is always complex and that people will be mad at the landlord no matter who it is.

Newly confirmed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, most recently a Montana congressman, opposes the transfer of federal lands. During the campaign, President Trump and his hunter son expressed similar sentiments.

“Our public lands are why we live here and we need to defend them and we should not sell them off,” Simpson said to applause from a Boise City Club audience that honored him in December for his work on the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness.

An earlier version of this story had the incorrect acreage for Idaho endowment lands, which is 2.4 million acres.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

The rally begins at 11 a.m. on the south steps of the Capitol. For more information, visit facebook.com/Idahoansforpubliclands.