When it comes to public lands, there is a clear disconnect between everyday Idahoans and the legislators who are supposed to represent our values and priorities. This was made abundantly clear throughout the legislative session when legislators brought forward three prominent anti-public lands bills. Approximately 62% (34.5 million acres) of Idaho is public land. For the majority of us this is a source of pride and one of the reasons we love Idaho.
A recent study by Colorado College found that 74% of Idahoans “say the ability to live near, recreate on, and enjoy public lands like national forests, parks or trails, is a significant factor in their choice to live in the West.” Idahoans view these lands as an asset that warrants protection and support. Meanwhile, our legislators consistently characterized 62% of our land as a burden to our state that needs “fixing.”
Sixteen co-sponsors signed on to support House Bill 162, which sought to create a Federal Lands Council to interfere with federal land management. This is the same cohort of legislators that created a similar committee less than a decade ago with the intention of transferring all public lands into state control, even though federal control is what guarantees us as citizens access to that land.
Legislators saw overwhelming opposition to their public lands views when nearly 500 public lands advocates joined us at the Statehouse, and hundreds more called and emailed from across the state to oppose H162.
The 2019 State of the Rockies study also found that 92% of Idahoans “believe the outdoor recreation economy is important for the future of their state and the Western U.S.” Yet legislators proposed HJM5,a bill actually titled Federal Lands Selling, that would demand that the federal government sell off federal land every time it gained even a small parcel. Easements, boat launches, trailhead parking and other newly acquired parcels would result in a chunk carved out of existing public land elsewhere and sold off. While we are sympathetic to the challenges faced by rural counties, selling public land does not lead to prosperity. There is a clear disconnect when most Idahoans see public lands as an economic asset and legislators see it only as a detriment.
Idahoans don’t just support public lands, they support local input into the public lands decision-making process. It’s a term you hear often in our state: an “Idaho-style solution.” There have been many, from the Boulder White Clouds to the Owyhee Initiative, and they all share a common theme: bringing people together and finding common ground. It’s a slow but worthwhile practice. The Colorado College study unsurprisingly found that only 18% of Idahoans supported “reducing the amount of time that the public can comment on proposed changes affecting public lands.” This is in stark contrast to HJM8, a resolution to ask Congress to eliminate all Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) identified as “non-suitable,” but refusing to call for the advancement of the areas in fact deemed suitable for Wilderness. Allowing for no public input and full of one-sided demands, HJM5 was markedly not an Idaho-style solution.
With 74% of Idahoans considering themselves outdoor recreation enthusiasts, it’s clear that access to those opportunities is an essential part of the Idaho way of life. In recent years however, it has become increasingly common for individuals to block access to public lands, locking out recreationists and illegally keeping the land we all own to themselves. The Public Access Protections Act, SB 1089, was introduced in the Senate to address this issue and to allow everyday Idahoans a civil remedy for the illegal blocking of public lands. But when it was introduced in the Senate, it wasn’t even passed out of committee. One legislator openly admitted that he wouldn’t support the bill because he thought it was likely that he himself was currently blocking access to public lands near his property.
Idahoans love and cherish our public lands. It is time certain legislators realize they are working in direct opposition to the values of their constituents. What’s more, citizens need to ensure that those representing them share their values. Attacks on Idaho’s public lands must stop and CVI will continue its work to hold our leaders accountable, empower everyday Idahoans to voice their values, and to protect the public lands in our great state.