Legislators Use National Crisis to Undermine Public Lands

By Eric Oliver, Conservation Fellow

Last week Idaho’s legislature finally adjourned. As the national coronavirus crisis mounted, many lawmakers expressed frustration that the legislative session didn’t conclude earlier. But others saw a different opportunity in the crisis — a chance to push forward unpopular bills, knowing that everyday Idahoans were mandated to stay at home, far from the crowded hearing rooms of the Statehouse.

Apparently, Social Distancing Doesn’t Apply in the Legislature

As cases of COVID-19 began to double in Ada county, folks who otherwise would have been in the Capitol testifying, meeting with lawmakers, and listening in on important sessions were wisely following guidance from our state and federal governments to stay home. Two senators showed leadership by heading home early to protect themselves and their communities from the spread of COVID-19. After all, residents of Boise have been urged to stay away from Idaho’s rural communities, the same towns our legislators are heading back to after months in the Treasure Valley. Between their home districts and the state capitol, some lawmakers even made a pit stop for wining-and-dining outside Washington, DC as the outbreak struck the east coast.

But for lawmakers bent on pushing through unpopular ideas, the news surrounding COVID-19 was an opportunity to undermine Idaho’s cherished public lands and waters. As widespread concern for public gatherings and travel mounted, and news feeds became dominated with headlines about the pandemic, anti-public lands legislators sprang into action. Hours after Governor Little had declared a state of emergency, advising against gathering in groups larger than ten, Representative Judy Boyle introduced a bill that would have sent a $250,000 check from taxpayer money to infamous public lands opponent Ken Ivory to support his efforts to put a dollar sign on every acre of Idaho’s public lands.

Snake Oil Salesman Gets His Bill

You might remember that Ken Ivory swung through Idaho on his anti-public lands roadshow earlier this year to pitch this project. CVI members packed the hearing room, and folks expressed concern in local papers. For a while it seemed Ivory had moved on from Idaho (in Wyoming, he nearly talked the state’s lawmakers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars) but with the help of Rep. Boyle, he was on his way to extracting a quarter of a million dollars from Gem State taxpayers.

As Boyle introduced the bill, she went out of her way to deny claims that it’d be bad for public lands, and stuck to Ivory’s script about concern for rural communities. CVI has written before about our conviction that the struggles of rural counties ought to be met with real solutions, not disingenuous and expensive complaints. For Boyle, who participated in the armed takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, these comments were akin to saying “no offense” before delivering a stinging insult. In politics as in life, actions speak louder than words, and Boyle’s years-long career of public lands antagonism speaks for itself.

Following the advice of the Governor, CVI steered clear of the hearing room and instead listened to the online audio stream. Along with our partners, we had asked the committee ahead of time to consider ways to help Idahoans testify from home, as folks across the state had been urged not to travel and avoid crowded spaces. Remote testimony has been provided in the past so out-of-town experts can weigh in on bills, for example. Despite this request, the chair of the House Committee on Resources and Conservation, Marc Gibbs, who started the hearing over an hour late and changed the agenda before beginning, said that “It looked like there was no one wishing to testify” on Boyle’s bill. One CVI member even called the committee’s secretary as the hearing was underway, hoping to be able to testify over the phone, but was met with only a voicemail. It’s hard enough for everyday folks to follow along with the legislature, but this made it virtually impossible to participate.

Some members of the committee were concerned, both about the price tag and utility of the bill, as well as the lack of public presence at the hearing. But Rep. Blanksma quickly voiced her support, followed by Rep. Dorothy Moon who said “I love it.” The bill was quickly approved by voice vote by the same legislators who, weeks earlier, voted against even introducing a bill celebrating Idaho’s outdoor heritage, and expressed disdain for another bill seeking to protect public access.  

Prioritizing Politics Over People

There’s an old saying that “character is who you are when no one is watching.” At a time when most Idahoans are grappling with how to support their loved ones during a time of crisis, some of our elected officials didn’t appear too concerned. Instead of finding solutions to guide Idahoans through the indisputably tough period ahead of us, some focused on their own agendas over the needs of their communities, aiming to harm our legacy of public lands in the process. A 2020 poll shows a full 70% of Idahoans consider themselves conservationists, so it’s no wonder this bill waited until most of us had our hands full.