Letters from the West

Spending bill, power line compromise shows how government give and take can work

A high-power transmission line runs through the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey Conservation Area south of Kuna. A congressional compromise embraces the route for new powerlines through Southern Idaho recommended by a coalition of Idaho and local interests.
A high-power transmission line runs through the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey Conservation Area south of Kuna. A congressional compromise embraces the route for new powerlines through Southern Idaho recommended by a coalition of Idaho and local interests.

The $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill the House passed 309-118 on Wednesday has elements both sides can cheer as victories or losses, depending on their point of view.

Democrats, Republicans and President Donald Trump all got something and had to give up something. This is the way government should work in our democratic system: compromise.

You might not like the fact that the deal didn’t provide the money for the Secure Rural Schools Program that many Idaho rural counties depend on to offset costs of roads and schools. But the same local officials will like the payments in lieu of taxes they get from the federal government, which was fully funded.

Salmon lovers will be pleased that the bill keeps $65 million for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund and happy a rider was killed that bans removal of federal dams like the four U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-operated dams on the lower Snake River that hinder Idaho salmon migration. But wildlife advocates don’t like limits the bill placed on spending for listing endangered species.

The Environmental Protection Agency took just a small cut. But many Trump and Republican initiatives to reduce climate-change, air-quality and water-quality regulations were approved in the bill.

The day after Idaho Republican Rep. Raúl Labrador re-introduced his bill requiring the president to get state approval before designating new national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906, a very different omnibus monument rider was revealed. It directs the Department of Interior to work with Congress, tribes and local folks before making new national monument designations under the 111-year-old law. Labrador’s bill would gut the act, while the omnibus bill puts into law the practice of the executive branch since at least 1999.

Trump is sending more mixed signals. When he directed the Interior Department to study national monuments designated since 1996, he promised to “return control to the people.” But the same department recently ordered its agencies to suspend the work of 200 boards and committees nationwide made up of local people who advise the agency how to manage public resources.

The Bureau of Land Management has called off the meetings of its Resource Advisory Councils, which are made up of conservationists, ranchers, outdoor recreationists, state and local government officials, tribal officials and academics. Their work for BLM districts ensures that local voices are included in decision-making.

One of the great examples of their work is the Boise District council’s recommendation on two routes for the Gateway West high-power transmission line across the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area south of Kuna. The council reached a consensus that had wide support among nearly all Idaho groups.

But the Obama administration rejected the local consensus in favor of a route that would have sullied the view along the Owyhee Front and gone through critical sage grouse habitat. The Trump administration rightly remanded that decision back to the Idaho office.

But the administration message is confusing: Does it want to suspend local involvement or truly return “control to the people”?

“They say they’re supporting collaboration, but there’s a lot of top-down decisions being made,” said Michael Gibson, a member of the Boise advisory council and an Idaho field coordinator for the advocacy group Trout Unlimited.

Let’s hope the suspension is temporary.

“We are told we will be able to reschedule the meetings in September,” said Erin Curtis, a spokeswoman for the Idaho BLM state office.

Luckily for Idaho Power and the other groups who favor the Gateway compromise, it also is included in the omnibus spending bill. The Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area Boundary Modification Act, co-sponsored by Labrador and Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, uses the advisory group’s recommended routes and removes the power-line corridor from the conservation area.

In exchange, the Birds of Prey area will receive enhanced mitigation and conservation measures and an additional 4,800 acres. That’s how government is supposed to work: give and take, listening to the best input and putting together the solution that does the best for the most. In a word, compromise.

In the end, the overall spending in the bill was too much for Labrador, despite including the route-adjustment he wanted for the power line in his district.

“While this bill does contain some good things,” he said, “I would have preferred to see included in the bill more of the priorities President Trump and the majorities in Congress campaigned on — especially funding for a border wall.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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