RIGGINS “Unique as it is, it’s very informative for us,” said Idaho Governor C. L. “Butch” Otter, speaking about the Capital for a Day event to more than 50 people – Riggins’ residents, and state staff and employees combined – last Friday, May 18. As much as it provides a view of the needs and concerns in communities across the state who get to directly question Idaho’s top officials, “We also learn from you,” he said, and, as staff are able, take care of those issues raised.
“Frankly, this is why these are so useful,” Otter said.
The Riggins event was the 102 Capital for a Day hosted by Otter – a monthly occurrence that started in 2007 during his governorship — and included cabinet heads and representatives of multiple state agencies, who were called on through the morning and early afternoon for questions and elaboration on issues ranging from highway speed limits and concerns with upstream mining to issues with vehicle collisions with wildlife and a new economic development designation for Riggins.
A concern raised by Riggins EMT Bill Lenhart was the community’s unique position in the state as a town restricted in growth and along a major highway, which needed cooperation from Idaho Transportation Department in reducing the 45 MPH speed limit through southern part of the community. This would help encourage needed commercial and economic development. The town needs help within its limited means to make itself more viable, he said.
“We’re a dirt-poor little town,” he said. “We don’t need to be brought to heel. We need some exceptions to be made for us.”
“This isn’t the first Capital for a Day that I’ve heard this,” Otter said, noting Driggs as another, which has schools at either end of town and a need for slower highway speeds in these locations. On a solution to the Riggins issue, “Let’s look around for one,” he said, and directed this to Dist. 7B Rep. Paul Shepherd – who was in attendance – and Idaho Transportation Department officials.
Resident LouAnn McCune raised two separate issues during the event — one concerning wildlife vs. vehicle accidents in the region, and the second a concern with Midas Gold’s Stibnite mine project upstream from Riggins, specifically state contingency plans in the event of an environmental disaster.
“What’s the feasibility of an underpass?” McCune asked, to direct deer, for example, to and from the river and avoid vehicle crashes with wildlife, which she said, “everyone living in Riggins has smashed their car at least once.”
Such examples existing in the state, such as near Bonners Ferry, noted Dave Kuisti, ITD Dist. 2 engineer. Several department officials discussed wildlife concerns are one of several factors considered in studies for proposed highway projects, which is helped, as Ed Schriever, deputy director for Idaho Fish and Game, said, with ongoing state-collected data, “where we have animal collision hot spots.”
“One of the real challenges here is being right next to the river,” Schriever continued, regarding Riggins’ situation. To effectively create a corridor, whether an under or overpass, requires substantial room and “a significant amount of fencing to guide the wildlife… and it is very expensive.” The state looks to manage its dollars on projects where it can make a difference and where necessary, he said, “but we’ll not be able to do it everywhere in the state.”
On the Stibnite mine, McCune said, “Should the worst scenario occur, and there’s a break in the dam, Riggins, Idaho, will bear the brunt of that,” in terms of affecting its economy and the water itself.
“We’ve learned from past mistakes and things we’re still suffering through,” Otter said. He and officials noted the good communications with Midas on its mine proposals, with director John Tippets, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, adding the company is in compliance with its permits and is also looking to clean up some “legacy issues” at the site. Multiple agencies, both state and federal, are involved in oversight of the process, and Otter said those permits and that information are open to public inspection.
“It’s an important issue,” Tippets said. “We’re watching this very closely.”
Riggins city clerk Brenda Tilley asked for details on the Riggins’ designation by Otter in early April as a federal “opportunity zone.”
Idaho Department of Commerce officials explained this is a new community development program established last year to encourage long-term investments in low-income urban and rural communities. Its use can range from affordable housing to business development. With designations in place, the state is waiting on finalization of federal rules on how to proceed next.
One participant concern was raised by river guide Gary Lane on what he quoted as $16 billion on fish mitigation efforts, that a “gag order” be removed from state officials discussing the issue and that careful consideration be given to removal of the four lower Snake River dams. Otter stated his continued opposition to dam removal, later noting multiple factors affect healthy fish runs including predators, and ocean currents and temperatures.