Voices from the river

Voices from the River: An Idaho solution

Redfish Lake, Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho. Photo by Chris Hunt

by Chris Hunt

I admit it. I’m biased. I love my home state of Idaho. Home to sprawling sage-brush seas, sky-piercing mountains, old-growth cedar and spruce forests and some of the best trout water on the planet, it’s no accident that I arrived here some 20 years ago with my family. There are no plans to leave.

But I’ll be the first to admit that Idaho’s politics often frustrate me. Our state Legislature can be incredibly dogmatic and not a little myopic. There’s precious little room for discussion or debate on issues of import, solely because our lawmakers are largely cut from that same rural, tough-as-nails cloth that has served their interests well for generations. Even now, two decades later, I’m a relative newcomer, and I’m always received with side-of-the-eye skepticism whenever I step into a lawmaker’s office in Boise to talk shop.

But once you pierce that crusty outer shell with some of our politicians, you can see that we all love what we all have in common—Idaho’s vast, open lands that nurture everything from elk and moose to native trout to wolves and bears. I think Idaho stacks up against any western state when it comes to the quality of it’s hunting and fishing. We just don’t see the need to brag about it.

I was heartened today to see a piece by my friend Rocky Barker in the Idaho Statesman, noting Gov. Butch Otter’s opposition to the transfer of public lands to the states for management or sale, and for good reason. Otter has seen the firefighting bill, he told Barker. But it goes further than that. Otter, in recent years, has seen fruit grow from carefully tended collaborative efforts to improve the way Idaho’s public lands are managed. He’s seen hard-nosed, conservative rural county commissioners sit down with urban-dwelling wildlife conservationists and arrive at conclusions acceptible to both. In the late 2000s, Otter watched as environmentalists, sportsmen, timber industry representatives and local elected officials hammered out the unique Idaho Roadless Rule that generally overees the federal management—and protection—of Idaho’s 8 million acres of U.S. Forest Service backcountry.

Otter, in his State of the State address to the Idaho Legislature, noted the success of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Good Neighbor Authority, which essentially allows the state to sell federal timber leases on lands that are part of restoration efforts and have been approved for such use by the U.S. Forest Service. Idaho auctioned off its first timber sale last year and more sales, in areas where logging and restoration go hand-in-hand, are planned. As Otter pointed out to Barker, once he stopped looking at every green-clad federal forest ranger or BLM land manager as the enemy—once he realized that they put their kids in the same schools as our kids, attended our churches, ate at our diners and became part of the Idaho tapestry—it was much easier to realize progress rather than simply bemoan heavy-handed federal oversight.

And this from an old-school Sage-brush Rebel.

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The Salmon River near Stanley, Idaho.

There’s hope for Idaho and for its public lands that truly make the state what it is today. I’m certain there are still those in the state Legislature that will try to rip our public lands birthright—and our legacy—out from under us as this year’s session gets under way in Boise. But I’m heartened that our state’s chief executive has, himself, had a change of heart, and that the myopes will have to go through him and a legion of hunters and anglers who see the value of meeting in the middle, negotiating and walking away with respect for one another. And, just as importantly, we’ll walk away with our public lands heritage intact. For those of us who hike, camp, ride, fish, hunt and climb—and that’s damn near every one of us—that’s why we live here.

Yes, I love Idaho. Maybe it’s time we all bragged about it a little bit more.

Chris Hunt is the national editorial director for Trout Media. He lives and works in Idaho Falls.