Letters from the West

Old Sagebrush Rebel Otter softens his stance

Protecting sagebrush is a big deal as we try to preserve the sage grouse’s habitat.
Protecting sagebrush is a big deal as we try to preserve the sage grouse’s habitat. kjones@idahostatesman.com

No one can say Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has enthusiastically embraced the collaborative process that has spread across the West over the past 25 years.

As a congressman, he rejected both Rep. Mike Simpson’s Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bills and Sen. Mike Crapo’s Owyhee initiative, which led to creating 517,000 acres of desert wilderness. But Otter didn’t stand in the way of passage in 2015 when Simpson’s Central Idaho wilderness bill was approved unanimously in Congress.

Had he been intransigent — which is his instinct on designating wilderness, closing land to mechanized travel and resource development — neither would be law. The same is true on the Idaho Roadless Plan. When he was still governor, Jim Risch authored the collaborative proposal to protect nearly all of the acres President Bill Clinton had protected in his own roadless rule. Otter picked up the Risch plan without losing a beat.

So when Ken Salazar, the Obama administration’s first secretary of interior, proposed Otter put together an Idaho plan for protecting sage grouse, mostly on federal land in Idaho, Otter convened a task force that included ranchers, industry, lawmakers and conservation groups such as the Idaho Conservation League and the Nature Conservancy of Idaho. The goal was to develop a plan to protect habitat that wouldn’t require the Endangered Species Act to be invoked.

The reluctant collaborator had convened a collaborative group. His task force came up with a plan for protecting the best sage grouse habitat, focusing on preventing fire but also addressing grazing and other activities in language and emphasis that all the parties supported. The Obama administration and new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell supported the plan and made it part of the preferred alternative.

Jewell went even further. She issued an order making fire in sage grouse habitat the administration’s top fire priority after safety and community protection, following Idaho’s lead.

But as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service got closer to its deadline for making a decision on whether the sage grouse warranted listing as a threatened species, it pushed the Bureau of Land Management to add new Sagebrush Focal Areas, which set up a process to withdraw 12 million acres across 11 Western states from mineral and oil and gas development.

The Fish and Wildlife Service also had new language on grazing, which initially Idaho ranchers hoped had the same flexibility as the language they had negotiated. In May 2015, when Jewell announced her fire plan after the focus areas had been proposed, Otter told me they were “close” to agreeing to the BLM plans.

But the next weekend, he went on his annual trail ride with ranchers and others. He got an earful of worries that the new federal focal areas would threaten their future, despite assurances to the contrary. And miners joined oil and gas explorers in saying the area withdrawals made the plans worse than a threatened listing for the sage grouse.

Otter went back and forth, talking with other governors and Jewell, telling her the day before she was going to announce the listing decision and final sage grouse plan changes that he would be in Denver when she announced the plan. By the next morning, Otter had a change of heart.

Three days later he announced he was suing Jewell over the plans, sharing the miners’ rhetoric that the plans were worse than a threatened listing for ranchers. He later backed off that statement, perhaps chatting with Lt. Gov. Brad Little about the Little family’s nightmare dealing with endangered salmon in Central Idaho.

At the Western Governors Association workshop on endangered species that Otter hosted in Boise on Tuesday, Idaho’s governor embraced the collaborative process.

The best solutions to the complexities of the Endangered Species Act are “collaborative discussions,” Otter told the diverse groups of county officials, consultants, ranchers, environmentalists and industry executives.

“Did I always feel that way? No, no,” he said. “There were times when I was just beginning to get into the political process, when the Sagebrush Rebellion started during the Carter administration, and there were an awful lot of us that thought, ironically, we ought to be taking over an awful lot more.

“Really what it comes down to is the input we have. Ownership in and of itself is not the answer. Being part of the management process and being part of the solution and being seriously considered with our ideas is what matters and will continue to matter.”

It’s not accurate to say that Otter isn’t collaborating because he is suing. The final plan was not the plan he supported, but the clock had run out and the administration did what it thought necessary to prevent listing.

Idaho is moving forward with the sage grouse plans despite its opposition. Filing a lawsuit keeps the state at the table when the inevitable lawsuits come from the Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity, which were at the Tuesday workshop as invited guests. Those groups don’t think the plans went far enough.

The people who weren’t invited were the Bundy brothers and their band of armed occupiers at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon.

Otter, the old Sagebrush Rebel, didn’t want to be pulled into that fight. But he drew a line that makes a pretty good boundary for the “collaborative discussions” he sees as fruitful.

“If you are not going to obey the rule of law, then you can’t expect the rule of law to work for you,” Otter said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker