Taking Care of Our Public Lands the “Idaho Way”

Idaho is home to millions of acres of public lands that belong to every American. This legacy of open space is our birthright and, for many, the reason we call Idaho home. Governor Cecil Andrus was known to refer to Idaho’s splendid landscapes as “our second paycheck” and we couldn’t agree more. Few Americans spend more time on our public lands and waters than Idahoans.

The majority of this land is managed for “multiple-use.” This means that our friends at land management agencies like the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management are tasked with balancing all sorts of uses: outdoor recreation, grazing, habitat restoration, logging, forest health projects–you name it! These decisions are not easy to make. “Multiple use” means that disagreements are inevitable, which can lead to litigation, fines, and frustrated neighbors. However, in the past decade or so an alternative has emerged in Idaho and folks around the country have taken notice. In 2019 Idaho is leading the nation in innovative, homegrown solutions to land management–you could call it the “Idaho Way.”

The Idaho Way means doing the hard work of really getting to know your neighbors–and giving them the benefit of the doubt. It means recognizing the value of collaboration and respect. Too often we forget that while we may disagree on certain things, we have a lot in common: we care about our families, we value our livelihoods, and we care more about the land than we sometimes know how to express. We want our kids and grandkids to have the same kind of life we have, with dirt under their fingernails, a good head for problem-solving, and a deep appreciation for open landscapes that shape who we are. Whether you’re a rancher, a backpacker, or a hunter; whether you spend time on public lands to survey flora and fauna, map a timber plot, or take the dog for a walk; these are our lands.

But what does the Idaho Way actually look like? The Owyhee Initiative, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, is a great example. Hoping to get ahead of a one-size-fits-all management plan, ranchers, hikers, scientists, rafters, ATV users, wilderness lovers, and more came together to find a solution to land management in the Owyhees that worked for everyone. Though it didn’t come quick, the deal they struck represented a solution that everyone could live with. Each stakeholder was able to have their voice heard and, together, they found a workable solution that addressed everyone’s priorities. Groups that would otherwise have resorted to endless litigation instead forged partnerships that last to this day.

Even more importantly the Owyhee Initiative brought real Idaho-based solutions to land management in the area, giving all stakeholders a sense of certainty and resolution. Because of the collaborative process the agreement has easily weathered changing political winds in Washington. The proposal was brought to Congress by Senator Crapo and has for years been the law of the land; now the Owyhees are a place where all users feel welcome.

The Owyhee Initiative is only one example of folks working together on Idaho’s public lands. We benefit from about a dozen forest collaboratives that bring together stakeholders to find answers to tough National Forest management decisions that don’t leave anyone out. Businesses, local residents, conservation groups, and others have learned that making a serious commitment to participating in forest collaboratives pays off in the long run. It’s not only good for the land, it’s good for our communities. By working together folks come to see each other not as opponents, but as neighbors. This mindset has led to Idaho’s pioneering use of the Good Neighbor Authority and our Shared Stewardship agreement with the federal government, showing that our state is in the business of solving problems rather than simply complaining about them.

This is not to say that collaboration is easy. Challenges to collaborative management, including efforts to derail or delegitimize investments in collaboration, pose a serious threat. It’s a lot easier to break something down than build it up. There is a small minority of folks in Idaho who would rather push forward one-sided decisions, or refuse to participate in collaborative processes altogether. This mindset is shortsighted and ultimately harmful to durable, long-term public land management on behalf of all Idahoans and future generations.

Conservation Voters for Idaho is deeply supportive of collaborative land management in our state and is proud that states across the nation are looking to Idaho as an example. There is more pressure than ever on our public lands as Idaho grows and public lands become increasingly popular, Only through in-depth, thoughtful, and inclusive discussions with affected stakeholders can we confidently make decisions that are truly in the best interests of every Idahoan. We know that these kinds of solutions are not easy but we firmly believe they are worthwhile investments in our communities and landscapes. We will continue to celebrate Idaho’s leadership in collaborative solutions to land management; it’s a model of decision-making that ought to be continued at home and replicated around the nation. Here’s to the Idaho Way.