Public Land Opponents Place Public Health At Risk

By Eric Oliver, Conservation Fellow

A recent New York Times article profiled Idaho’s notorious public lands opponents, Ammon Bundy and Representative Heather Scott, as they weighed in on their latest cause: undermining science and governmental leadership in a time of crisis. We’ve come to expect out-of-touch comments about public lands from these folks, but their recent actions in light of the COVID-19 crisis in Idaho illustrate just how dangerous their “me first” mentality is by directly placing Idahoans in harm’s way.

Ammon Bundy is notorious for spearheading violent confrontations with the government over public lands issues, including an armed standoff in Nevada and his ill-fated takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon that left one person dead. Lately, Bundy has spent his days picking fights online from his home base in Emmett, Idaho, and encouraging Idahoans to defy health and safety recommendations from our nation’s leading experts.

Moments after Governor Brad Little issued a statewide stay-at-home order, Bundy roused his supporters with a Facebook video, calling them to an in-person meeting in Emmett in direct defiance of the order. Since then, he’s promoted and attended gatherings across the state, sowing disinformation and undermining Idaho’s efforts to curb this public health crisis at a time when our per-capita infection rates have surpassed California’s. As rural communities are begging for visitors to stay home, Bundy is urging folks to assemble. While his actions endanger the health of his supporters and residents of Idaho’s small towns alike, his concern for the greater good takes a back seat when his politics are in play (a sentiment we know all too well when it comes to public lands).

“I want the virus now,” Ammon Bundy told a crowd in Sandpoint. “If it gets bad enough, and our rights are infringed upon enough, we can physically stand in defense in whatever way we need to.” 

It would be harmful enough if Bundy were alone in his efforts, but a handful of conspiracy-minded elected officials have thrown their support behind him. Representative Heather Scott, who traveled with Rep. Judy Boyle and Rep. Sage Dixon to meet Bundy during his takeover of the Malheur Refuge, lashed out against the stay-at-home order, encouraging her constituents to defy state and national recommendations. Scott’s dangerous rhetoric landed her in a report on domestic terrorism in 2019. But never before has she used her platform to goad Idahoans straight into a public health emergency—indeed, a doctor in North Idaho called her comments “criminal.”

In a letter to constituents, Rep. Heather Scott warned of “The Virus that Tried to Kill the Constitution.” 

The list goes on. Representative and Pastor Tim Remington, who was appointed after Representative John Green’s felony conviction, called his congregation to an in-person service in violation of Idaho’s order. Even Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin, known for her tacit support of the anti-public lands “3%” group, posted on her Facebook that she was “surprised” by the stay-at-home order (Little’s office had already shared the information with media outlets). She launched a Facebook survey asking Idahoans if they agreed with the order, undermining the Governor’s credibility. Her real surprise came when 74% of the 13,000 respondents did indeed support efforts to protect the public.

“I will be there, and I will bring as many people as I can,” – Ammon Bundy promoting a 1,000 person gathering in Twin Falls in April.

McGeachin’s survey illustrates the extent to which Idaho’s politicians are increasingly out of touch with their constituents and sheds light on their troublesome use of fear and harmful rhetoric to get their way. This is exactly why these same officials continue to demonize public lands despite their overwhelming public support. Their misinformation and reckless statements show just how far they’re willing to go in the name of their political agenda. In public service, it’s poor form to misrepresent the public’s opinion; it’s another thing entirely to lead folks into harm’s way.

Defending his order, Governor Little has said that these voices, though loud, simply don’t represent the vast majority of Idahoans. As the crisis sets in, nearly all of us are working hard to make Idaho proud: taking care of our loved ones, supporting small businesses, and doing everything we can for the good of our communities. Try though they might, we must remember that when it comes to what makes Idaho a fantastic place to live, fringe public land-opponents like Ammon Bundy and Rep. Scott don’t speak for Idaho—you do.

Idahoans are known for coming together and making our voices – and values – heard, like we did in the overwhelmingly popular pro-public lands rally shown below. And although we can’t gather right now like we have done in the past, we can still make sure we’re amplifying our voices on social media, by phone, and by email to our elected leaders.