Letters from the West

After Otter’s trail ride, some hobnobbing with the rich

Idahoans will flock out of the Treasure Valley today for the Fourth of July weekend, filling up Idaho 55 on the way to McCall, Cascade and all places wild.

They will hike, fish, water-ski, bike, motorcycle, ride horseback, raft, kayak, canoe, and paddle board to their hearts delight on Idaho’s abundant federal land and state waters. It’s the summer camp season and we Idahoans are blessed to have all of this right out our back door.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is leading the way with his 15th annual trail ride. It’s a tradition that began when he was in Congress and has continued through his 10 years as Idaho’s top executive. The ride, sponsored by the Idaho Cattle Association, brings federal decision-makers together with ranchers and other Otter friends to hear their Idaho viewpoint on issues ranging from endangered species to fire and logging.

Occasionally, Otter has invited representatives of conservation groups, but these rides are his agenda and the agenda of the Cattle Association, a fact that has brought past criticism from groups that were left out.

The ride this year began Wednesday in Copper Basin, a breathtakingly scenic high-elevation basin between Mackay and Hailey, a remote and beloved area that some readers will curse me for even mentioning. Others have complained to me for years about the federal agencies’ lax management of the basin. It will be interesting to see how Otter portrays the area’s management when he returns from his trip with ranchers and federal land managers who oversee the area.

To be fair to Otter, Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus used to go on regular trail rides with national forest supervisors like those riding with Otter. I toured the Palisades Wilderness Study Area with Andrus and the Idaho Fish and Game Commission in 1987 when he was working on a statewide wilderness bill with Sen. Jim McClure.

I’m pretty sure he still thinks the alpine landscape along the Wyoming border deserves wilderness protection. I’m also certain that Gov. Otter disagrees.

Yes, Otter friends are getting access to the governor. But if you’re an average Idahoan, you can to talk to an Idaho governor, too. All the governors I’ve known have made themselves available frequently. In Otter’s case, he’s held Capitol for a Day in towns across the state since he was elected and I have seen people at those events from all over the state.

Otter’s rides have had colorful guests and happening as well as impact on policy. When former Interior Deputy Secretary Steve Griles, a past mining lobbyist, was convicted of withholding information from Congress, he got a character reference from Otter based on their time together on the trail ride.

“We have shared many trails, and I have come to recognize that he is a genuine man who is proud of his service to the people of our nation,” Otter wrote.

In 2012, Bureau of Land Management State Director Steve Ellis reported that during the Otter trail ride, one rider told him not to show his face in Elko County, Nev., after Ellis had shut down a wind farm proposal on the border that threatened sage grouse habitat.

A video of Otter’s ride in 2015 laid out his case for more active management of forest lands, saying private and state land have been managed better. But the video of the work on private land looks remarkably like the volunteer rehabilitation done by Trout Unlimited alone on the South Fork of the Boise River.

Soon after Otter returns from his ride with the cowboys and the cowgirls, he heads to Sun Valley for the annual gathering of the most powerful business leaders in the world, which begins July 5. For more than 30 years, investment banker Herbert Allen’s Allen and Co. has hosted up to 300 Fortune 500 CEOs and Silicon Valley dealmakers such as Elon Musk and Warren Buffett for a conference that allows the rich and famous to mingle with the elite behind an careful curtain of privacy the Wood River Valley has famously provided. It began in 1982 and moves the exclusive fashion and art off the shelves in Ketchum and gives local babysitters lots of college money.

Allen’s guests go on raft trips, horseback ride, and mountain bike in the Smoky, Pioneer and Sawtooth Mountains in Sun Valley’s backyard. This year, for the first time, they will be able to hike into the new Hemingway, White Cloud and Jim McClure wilderness areas on Ketchum’s doorstep. Those wilderness areas were protected by Congress and President Obama’s pen Aug. 7.

Allen’s celebrities shouldn’t expect Gov. Otter to lead that tour.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker