Every now and then, just when we’re getting cynical, one of our elected officials does us proud. When it happens, it pays to take notice.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, made us proud at a recent congressional hearing. Someone made a flippant comment about public lands.
Simpson’s response: “I’ll tell you why people live in Idaho,” he said. “They live in Idaho because they love their public lands. ... They like their access to them for recreation, for hunting, for fishing.”
He alluded to ongoing efforts to transfer public lands to private interests.
“Let me tell you what happens when you sell those public lands. ... All of a sudden people can’t get to their favorite fishing hole or hunting grounds. ... That’s a problem. That’s why we like our public lands.”
His statements are timely. Anti-public lands activists, including some with Idaho connections, recently occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. These radicals claimed that public lands like national forests are illegitimate. Those ne’er-do-wells have been arrested, but their bad ideas are still at large.
In Boise and Washington, D.C., mainstream radicals are chipping away at our national forests. Out-of-state special interest groups, particularly the American Legislative Exchange Council, are pushing carbon-copy bills in Western statehouses to seize national forests and refuges.
Contrary to Simpson, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, favors this land grab agenda. He is pushing legislation transferring large blocks of national forests to state control, if not own outright. This bill goes down the slippery slope toward locked gates and no-trespassing signs.
Certainly, our public lands face serious challenges. We can point to problems like weeds, wildfire, water quality and habitat conditions that need resolution.
Special interests, however, have always wanted to privatize public lands — and in some cases have succeeded. Idaho has sold more than 1.5 million acres of land it received from the federal government. The public has lost access to the vast majority of it.
Here’s the sad part: Labrador’s land grab agenda does nothing for the very community Labrador claims to champion: rural small towns. His bill is driven by ideology, not pragmatism.
There is a better way. It’s not easy, but it is more productive. Idaho communities, sportsmen, industry, conservationists and elected officials can unite, neighbor to neighbor, and pound out real solutions with public lands managers. No, not everyone will get what he wants. But odds are they will make real progress.
In places like Lemhi County, these kinds of collaborative efforts have paid off with harvested timber, stream restoration and weed control, providing jobs and improving conditions on the ground. But they start with the premise that public lands belong to all of us. Idaho has many examples of diverse interests and rural communities working hard to find solutions to our most pressing resource problems. Yet these quiet efforts don’t make headlines like swaggering radicals or land-grab aficionados.
Idaho rancher and legislator Merrill Beyeler of Leadore recently was quoted in the Boise Weekly about how the Oregon standoff and polarizing rhetoric around public lands ownership is taking a real toll on communities and families. “It’s a tragedy,” he said. “What I think is occurring in the West is a lack of trust, and a lack of trust is created when we divide people and start to put people on opposite sides of the fence, and we don’t look at the larger issues.”
A better dynamic is possible. Idaho’s public lands are a real gem — for Idahoans and all Americans. They will thrive when we put aside mistrust and build real solutions for leaving them in better shape than we found them.
Jeff Barney is a member of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He lives in Boise and has hunted and fished public lands across Idaho for more than four decades.