Statesman Podium: Anti-federal government sentiment has a long history in Idaho

When the special session of the Idaho Legislature convenes on Monday, it will be for one major reason: distrust of the federal government by a group of the most conservative House members.

They rebelled at the thought of the federal government entering into an international treaty relating to enforcement of child support payments and then handing down rules to the states establishing various child support requirements.

Distrust of the federal government in Idaho is as old as Idaho itself. When gold was discovered in Idaho in the 1860s, the state was flooded with Southerners seeking their fortunes and intent on essentially getting lost in the wilderness and avoiding conscription into the Confederate army.

Idaho became a territory in 1863, and all of the territorial officers were appointed by President Abraham Lincoln and were therefore strongly loyal to the Union. But when it came time to elect the territorial legislature, the Southern sympathizers had an opportunity to elect legislators who were far less enamored with the Lincoln administration and the Union than were the appointed territorial officers.

During the 1866 legislative session, following the Confederate defeat, Gov. David Ballard initiated an effort to require that all individuals on the territorial payroll, including legislators, be required to take an oath of loyalty to the Union. Many legislators not only rebelled, but erupted into a full-fledged riot in the legislative chambers. Furniture was broken up and thrown through windows. There was even a threat of burning down the building. In the end, Gov. Ballard was forced to call out troops from nearby Fort Boise to quell the riot.

For most of Idaho’s history, its economy has been heavily dependent upon mining, timber and agriculture. Much of the success of these industries has depended upon the use of lands controlled by the federal government. With the advent of federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, it was inevitable there would be friction between the federal government and Idahoans dependent upon these industries for their economic well-being.

The anti-federal attitude that developed from such confrontations was also reflected in the attitude of most federal and state officials who represented Idahoans. An example is Sen. Weldon Heyburn, who served from 1903-1912. He was an attorney from Wallace with strong ties to the mining industry. As a senator, he was one of the leading opponents of President Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts to create national forests and establish the Forest Service. He simply didn’t believe that the federal government should control large amounts of land in the West.

A more current example, and perhaps an even better one, is the continuing concerns and suspicions that former Govs. Cecil Andrus and Phil Batt have of the federal government’s handling of nuclear waste at the Idaho National Laboratory.

This theme of distrust of the federal government continues to have legs in Idaho. In some instances, it is grounded in real-life experience. But in others it is more of a paranoia based on conspiracy theories and the fear of black helicopters. Interestingly, some of the most vocal advocates of anti-federal government sentiment don’t bat an eye when it comes to collecting their federal crop subsidy payments or representing constituencies that depend upon federal agencies such as the Department of Energy or the Department of Defense for their economic well-being.

So, when the special session of the Legislature meets and does what it should have done in April, I wonder how many of those nine House members who forced the need for a special session will sit back in satisfaction and say, “I guess we did the right thing and showed that evil federal government a thing or two.” And if they do, exactly what was it that they showed the federal government? It appears that if there were lessons learned from all of this, they are lessons better learned by the Idaho Legislature than by the federal government.

Boise’s Martin Peterson is a longtime observer of Idaho politics and a former member of the Statesman Editorial Board. He is retired.