Letters from the West

For Cruz, Idaho primary win didn’t turn on INL, public lands

There will be Idaho Republicans who suggest that Ted Cruz’s victory Tuesday came because of his strong position on transferring public lands to the states and — as Cruz said — to “the people.”

But as political scientists and pundits have pointed out, Cruz’s Idaho victory was primarily a vote against the crass and rude Donald J. Trump. Trump’s victories Tuesday in Michigan and Mississippi moved him one step closer to the Republican Party nomination, a reality that would be hard to swallow for many conservative Republicans in Idaho.

Trump won the three Idaho counties with the worst unemployment: Shoshone, Clearwater and Adams. He got his lowest total in Madison County, which has the highest employment rate in the state.

Trump won other rural counties, such as Lemhi, Camas, Boise and Idaho, where the traditional timber and mining industries have not recovered in two decades. In Washington and Owyhee counties, the two nearly tied.

That deep-seated frustration over natural resource industries is the source of the discontent that has led to the embrace of Utah’s demand that the federal government transfer lands and resources to the states.

Trump has said clearly that he wants to keep the public lands in federal hands. Cruz’s public land position is no model for the people trying to convince voters that transfer is good for them. Texas is his model, he told me following his rally Saturday.

“In my home state of Texas, 2 percent of the state is owned by the federal government,” Cruz said. “In Texas, we think that’s 2 percent too much.”

In Texas, 95 percent of the land is in private hands. Even worse: From 1997 to 2012, 1.1 million acres of agriculture and forest land was converted to nonagricultural uses, such as subdivisions and condos.

That’s not the kind of future Idahoans of any persuasion want. But I don’t think voters Tuesday were even working their way into the details.

At the same time Cruz was telling reporters Saturday that he wanted to sell off Idaho’s federal lands except for national parks, he also was saying he wanted to eliminate the Department of Energy.

He said he would transfer the nuclear waste cleanup task to another agency, perhaps Interior. Later, when his statement left many to fear he would close the Idaho National Laboratory, his staff issued a statement saying he would transfer the site to the Department of Defense.

That answer left the core INL mission — commercial nuclear energy research — without a home. On Tuesday, Cruz supporter Raul Labrador went on talk radio in Idaho Falls to defend Cruz, saying he would transfer the nuclear task to another agency.

Again, I doubt it really mattered. Cruz got 46 percent in Bonneville County, where the INL’s contractor is based, to Rubio’s 29 percent and Trump’s 16 percent.

When it’s all said and done, Trump likely will be the GOP nominee. His pro-federal lands position, made to appeal to hunters, anglers and other outdoors lovers, will be more important in the general election — even as he attacks federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management that control those lands.

But he won’t call the places preserved by Theodore Roosevelt and other thoughtful Republicans over the past century “a historical accident,” as Cruz did. I suspect Trump will embrace his fellow New Yorker’s legacy, if he says any more about it at all.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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