Idaho County voters will encounter something new on the Nov. 6 ballot: two advisory votes, asked at the request of the Idaho County Commission.
Along with the slate of candidates for public office, voters will be checking boxes to make their opinion known on public lands management within Idaho County:
• Do you support adding more acres of wilderness to Idaho County (In addition to the current 2,192,495 acres already Congressionally designated as wilderness)?
•Do you support adding more wild and scenic river segments in Idaho County (In addition to the current 348 miles already Congressionally designated as wild and scenic)?
Election results are advisory only and not binding in any decision to be made by the commission.
“It’s important we address those two issues on the forest,” said Skip Brandt, chair for the Idaho County Commission. This governing board has regularly made its opposition known to the public and the Forest Service on such proposed designations, but he is sometimes approached, he said, and questioned how does he know this is the consensus of his constituents?
“This is an attempt to remove that doubt on how our constituency feels,” he said.
Use of the advisory vote is a new tool for the commission, one Brandt said he didn’t know the commission had the ability to conduct. That was until the Idaho primary in May when Bonner County asked voters for a proposed wilderness area designation for Scotchman Peaks. Voters rejected the plan by 54 percent, and public officials, including Sen. Jim Risch — who supported the designation in legislation proposed in 2016 – reversed course to abide by voters’ wishes.
“That was a real ‘Ah, ha!’ moment,” he said. “And I think it’s really key for us.”
What popped in this issue for him, Brandt said, was his involvement with the Clearwater Basin Collaborative (CBC). The CBC is a group representing diverse interests from industry to environmental to public officials who, according to its official statement, work to “find solutions and provide recommendations regarding natural resource management issues.”
“I’ve been meeting with the CBC for over 10 years now, and one of the arm-wrestling issues we have is the environmental community wants more wilderness designation,” he said, “they want to lock up more of our federal lands.”
At issue is approximately 17.5 percent of more than four million acres of federally managed lands within the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, he explained; the rest of this is already under various restricted uses due to both Congressional and agency-recommended designations for fish and endangered animal habitat, wild and scenic rivers and wilderness. It’s the 17.5 percent they wrestle over and the disparity in what they will concede versus what they will get, according to Brandt, such as offering to support two timber sales in exchange for supporting their projects to obliterate more trails and roads, and designating more wilderness and wild and scenic rivers. Potentially there is agreement what they may propose, he continued, but there must be an equitable option they give that benefits local communities.
“That’s where the tradeoff is. If they want more wilderness, more wild and scenic, they have to give us something big,” he said.
With the advisory vote, what the commission hopes to get out of this is threefold, according to Brandt.
“One is the clarify with the environmental groups in the CBC, to get them to understand what a big lift this is, what additional wilderness designation really means to the locals,” he said.
The second is, as stated before, to clarify how Idaho County constituents stand on these issues, which he said can be a tool to guide the commission on present and future decisions on their behalf. At the last CBC meeting, Brandt said, an idea was proposed on if a trust were set up to pay Secure Rural Schools (SRS) and PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) to the county in perpetuity, would that warrant supporting locking up lands in a wilderness or wild and scenic designation?
“At some point in time, if that were to be thrown out and I had a question on whether locals would support me in that, maybe it would be time for an advisory vote,” he said.
The third – seeing how the Bonner County vote influenced elected officials — is to convey those results to the congressional delegation on how locals view these designations.
“That’s essentially what spurred us on; to have the public make a statement,” Brandt said. “The county commissioners have already commented on behalf of our constituents, but in the big picture, is that really the view of the population? I think it’s important the population make that statement.”