Idaho County Commission Chairman Jim Chmelik has traveled across the West, a pied piper seeking to get counties to follow him on his quest to get the federal government to transfer public lands to Western states.
Chmelik tells anyone who’ll listen that a lawsuit could give the states the land and turn back the clock for rural counties, with prosperity from logging, mining, agriculture and energy development. He got the Idaho Association of Counties on board and almost got the Idaho Legislature to join Utah in 2014 in preparing for a lawsuit to go after those federal lands.
But on Tuesday, Chmelik (pronounced SHMELL-lick) was defeated as Idaho County voters tired of his campaign and his unyielding support for a separate, unpopular local-federal land exchange. He was defeated 2,014 to 1,157 by Denis Duman, a former Cottonwood mayor opposed to the Lochsa land exchange and to spending county money to support Chmelik’s land-transfer efforts.
Chmelik lost a bid against Lt. Gov. Brad Little in 2014 built on his public lands platform. Former Sen. Russ Fulcher lost to Idaho Gov. Butch Otter pushing the same idea the same year.
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Chmelik blamed his defeat on sportsmen and conservation groups, which he said spent thousands on fliers and phone calls making misleading statements that he would support selling off public lands to private developers.
“I support a constitutional amendment banning the sale of these lands,” Chmelik said Wednesday.
Courtney Washburn, executive director of Conservation Voters for Idaho, gladly accepted the blame or credit, because she knows of no other groups that campaigned against Chmelik. Her group also targeted Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, who had sponsored a bill giving counties power to declare public lands a nuisance. Nuxoll lost to Carl Crabtree in the Republican primary.
“It’s obvious their approach to public lands wasn’t popular,” Washburn said.
While Idaho voters were rejecting Chmelik and Nuxoll, the Idaho Department of Lands was signing a good-neighbor agreement Tuesday with the U.S. Forest Service. The agreement will allow the state to act as a contractor put federal timber up for sale, with some of the proceeds going into a fund for additional forest work.
The first project will be a salvage sale in Idaho County, where the Clearwater Collaborative group already has increased timber sales and jobs.
“I support a collaborative movement,” said Duman, who will face Democrat Jim Rehder in November. “Not only does it get things done in the forest, but it gets people together so they can get to know each other so they can see if they can find common ground on other things.”
Instead of Chmelik’s grand scheme, Duman supports Republican U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador’s pilot program that would give the state management of 200,000 acres of federal land as an experiment.
Opposition to expanding Medicaid, not transferring public lands, was the issue that helped Dorothy Moon, a Stanley teacher, in the District 8 GOP primary. She defeated Rep. Merrill Beyeler, a Leadore rancher who had the support of the conservation voters and other conservationists.
Moon said she supports transferring some federal land to the state slowly as a pilot to see whether the state can manage it better. She opposes any sale of those federal lands.
“I love our lands,” said Moon, who lives off the grid 13 miles up the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River. “We need to manage it.”
She also said she does not oppose collaborative forest projects: “If people want to collaborate to get some timber cut, I’m for it.”