Is it possible to get a definitive reading from the May 17 Idaho primary results as concerns the federal lands issue? Opponents of federal land transfer, like Idaho Statesman columnist Rocky Barker, suggest that primary election losses by Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik and state Senator Sheryl Nuxoll signal the unpopularity of that idea.
IFF sees it differently. That Idaho and other western states can better manage local lands currently under federal control is a debate that gets tested each and every year with: wildland fires, access and use policy changes, grazing restrictions, and so forth. Against this backdrop, transfer opponents now concede that federal management could be better. Often, in rebutting the notion of transfer, they will open with that concession.
Why does that matter? Well, for starters, transfer opponents always offer the gravest outcome – if the lands are transferred they will be sold and privatized. Access and use will vanish.
So, let’s look at opponents’ tactics in recent elections. The Conservation Voters for Idaho Action Fund reported more than $32,000 of in-kind donations to the Sportsmen for Idaho. Sportsmen for Idaho turned around and spent nearly $30,000 on five legislative races. The phony sportsmen's group supported incumbents: Sen. Shawn Keough won, but Rep. Merrill Beyeler lost. The group also supported challengers: Senate candidate Carl Crabtree won, as did House candidate Megan Blanksma, but House candidate Doug Ricks lost. Of course, other issues mattered in most of these elections.
What is interesting is land-transfer opponents’ focus on perceived moderate Republicans vis a vis more conservative ones. Put another way, environmental groups are penetrating and using phony sportsmen's groups to take out Republican legislators who are more sympathetic to the notion of transfer. Expect this to be the norm going forward.
Those who support the transfer of public lands must understand, this idea will be fought at every level in the West in the coming years: in the media and at the ballot box.
While opponents claim victory in the fight over responsible land management due to the Chmelik and Nuxoll losses, the fight is just getting going.
Public opinion shows those supporting the status quo and museum-style land management practices are out of step, not transfer proponents. Polls increasingly show Idahoans receptive to the idea of transfer. One poll released Monday, which is certainly not definitive, showed about 70 percent of Idahoans support responsible land management performed at the local level.
Local land management, then, has the wind at its back. Let’s keep up the fight.