Last week I took a trip into the high country. It seemed like a good day to catch aspens in their annual color show, so we loaded up the truck and hit the country roads. In the trek from sagebrush sea up to higher elevation, we passed other Idahoans enjoying a beautiful fall day. Folks on side-by-sides, ranchers mounted on horseback gathering cows, and a couple of young people in a beat up AWD car loaded with backpacking gear. Everyone gave the steering-wheel-wave or a nod of acknowledgement as we passed each other on narrow tracks. It was a gorgeous day to be out on our public lands, soaking up scenery.
While bumping along up the mountain, a realization hit me. We take for granted the thousands of acres of shared lands in Idaho. Our public lands -- managed by the Forest Service, BLM, Fish & Wildlife, or other agencies -- are a treasure. Access to the outdoors is crucial to our happiness, our way of life. For many of us, public lands are a livelihood. We run cows or harvest timber in addition to hunting or getting dusty on the trails. Life on the land is part of who we are; it’s us.
Whether you mountain bike or dirt bike, bird hunt or bird watch, public lands matter. Ask any Idahoan if we should protect the land, and they’re likely to answer yes. In a world with immeasurable divisions, one thing we can all agree on is the unquantifiable value public lands bring to our lives.
Despite this unifying love of the land, there is a small faction of political power that disagrees. They seek to lock up the land via privatization. They look only at dollar value and disregard intrinsic value. They ignore the significant resources it takes to manage thousands of acres of public lands because of their hatred for the federal government. If lands issues are anything, they’re complex. Competing interests -- user groups, wildlife, industry -- all have a say, and rightly so. Our public lands are a shared resource, and should not be available solely to the highest bidder or the person who squawks the loudest.
Many of us can’t fathom living in an Idaho without public lands. However, every year, some legislators and county commissioners push for privatization or state takeover of our federally managed public lands. These efforts are quiet, but very real. Have the feds done a perfect job managing thousands of acres inside state lines? Of course not. Would the State of Idaho be equipped to better manage the land? Absolutely not. One big fire season would bankrupt us and force an eventual sell off, causing everyday Idahoans to lose access.
Having vast public lands in the state is not without downsides -- rural counties have a small tax base, stakeholder groups fight over access, stewardship is expensive and complicated...However, solutions won’t come from the state legislature. In the past legislative session, lawmakers passed a resolution to study the taxable value of our non-taxable public lands. Wasting $250,000 of Idahoans’ tax dollars won’t yield the results legislators and commissioners want. You wouldn’t go to a fly shop in Challis to fish the Potomac River; why cast about trying to solve a federal problem with local lines? Luckily, Idaho communities already lead the charge on change, with help from both the federal and state agencies.
Public land management is most effective when local communities take the lead, not politicians. Collaborative efforts involving federal and state agencies, and local communities are most successful. Idaho leads other western states in implementing successful collaborative programs like Shared Stewardship or the Good Neighbor Authority.
If you value our public lands as I do, pay attention. Vote. Listen to the rhetoric coming from those running for office. Ask questions. Hold politicians accountable for attempts to sell off acres or cut access. Are they champions for the land, or do they seek to fence you out? In a time when we’re so divided, don’t forget how love of land can unify us. Vote accordingly.