Legislators: Protect Public Lands for Future Users

By Eric Oliver, Conservation Fellow
Originally Published in the Idaho Press, Feb. 19, 2020

For many of us, Idaho is defined by the vast swaths of public lands that form the foundation of our outdoor way of life. These open spaces provide opportunities for recreation and exploration; they’re the stage for countless hunting and fishing trips that provide sustenance and teach our kids valuable lessons; and they contribute meaningfully to rural and urban economies alike. Every year, outdoor recreation dollars generate 78,000 jobs and $7.8 billion in consumer spending, supporting small businesses, outfitters, and manufacturing. Ranchers sustain their businesses with the help of grazing allotments on public land, while others make their living connecting Idaho’s natural resources to global markets. This is why poll after poll shows that Idahoans overwhelmingly value our public lands; it’s in our DNA.

But looking at the actions of our state’s legislature, you wouldn’t know it. As the session began, public lands supporters from across the state were alarmed when the Federalism Committee invited vocal public lands opponent Ken Ivory to present to its members. Seeking information on public lands’ impact on county finances, our legislators chose not to solicit input from everyday Idahoans but to import an out-of-state “expert” whose career has been built around disposing of public lands and wasting taxpayer dollars. Instead of working to tweak federal programs in Idaho’s favor–as both Senators Crapo and Risch have done for years–Ivory’s proposal seeks to bill Idahoans over $1 million to draft what would amount to a very expensive one-star review of the federal government. Any Idahoan can tell you complaining is not how we get things done.

Ivory’s snake oil pitch aside, in early February the legislature was poised to take action on important bills that would have worked to secure access to public lands and uplift their value to our state and its people. Idaho has seen many high-profile cases of blocked access, some of which drew national attention. Folks in every county are asking for the legislature to make sure our public property rights have the same protections as private property rights. But when a bill to do just that was presented to the House Resources & Conservation Committee on Wednesday, they refused to even print it, denying everyday Idahoans the chance to testify and share what public access means to them. Moments later, a resolution celebrating the contributions of public lands, from tourism and recreation to the natural resources economy, was also rejected with little explanation to the supporters in the room.

An alarming anti-public lands trend is appearing just weeks into the 2020 legislative session. The legislature knows how Idahoans feel about public lands, yet they continue to ignore them at every turn. At Wednesday’s hearing, the committee chair began by stating that committee members had received hundreds of communications in support of the bills from Idahoans across the state. As a packed room of public lands supporters looked on, he called the communications a “nuisance.” Our legislators are hearing from us, they’re just not listening.

There are weeks left in the session, and still time to reverse this worrisome trend of hostility towards public lands. In a time of partisan division, public lands represent not only a way of life for Idahoans but also a common thread between each of us. The legislature should speak up for one of Idaho’s most unifying values: the desire to protect our public lands for future generations.

View Eric’s original opinion piece published in the Idaho Press here.