Archive for the ‘Idaho Politics’ Category

The World is Watching

1391446725-new_add_the_wordsIdaho is making national news again and again for all the wrong reasons.

A quick Google search this morning turns up more than 130 stories on the 44 protesters arrested Monday in the Idaho State Capitol in Boise. Typical was the story in USA Today, a paper/digital publication with the top circulation numbers in the country, that featured the headline: “Dozens of gay rights activists arrested in Idaho.”

While the issue of same sex marriage has turned into the new civil rights steamroller across the country with state after state abandoning old notions and embracing equality the Idaho Legislature has again refused to even debate the issue of bringing the state’s human rights law into the 20th, not to mention the 21st, century.

As if anyone needed proof of how quickly the moral and legal ground is shifting under Idaho’s extra-conservative lawmakers, Politico reports today that same-sex marriage advocates are establishing a national “war room” to coordinate the incredibly diverse political battles on marriage equality that stretch now from Oregon to Virginia.

Politico’s Maggie Haberman writes: “Adding a bipartisan dimension to the effort at a time when a number of establishment Republicans are moving to back gay marriage, the war room will be led by SKDKnickerbocker’s Olivia Alair on the Democratic-leaning side, and Brian Jones, the former Republican National Committee official and Mitt Romney adviser, of Black Rock Group.”

But, as Idaho human rights advocates have stressed for years, an even more fundamental issue exists in Idaho – will gay and transgender Idahoans be afforded the same protections under the law that the rest of us already have? It is really an issue of basic fairness and equity; should Idaho law include workplace, housing, public accommodation, transportation, and education rights for its citizens without regard to “sexual orientation” and “gender identity?”

For the moment in Idaho, as in Utah and Virginia among other states, we can set aside the same-sex marriage issue that admittedly remains a hot button issue for many conservatives. Lawsuits challenging state bans on same-sex marriage, including a case in Idaho, will eventually sort out those issues. Yet, normally clear-headed legislators like Senate President Brent Hill in Idaho have elected to dodge the fundamental human rights issue yet again because they say the marriage issue must be resolved first. That is as disingenuous a position as it is short sighted.

All across this big and diverse country the idea, at long last, that all our brothers and sisters deserve the same treatment under the law – not more protection or different protection, just the same – has started to roll down, as Dr. King might have said, like a mighty river. Idaho risks much by being seen as having been hauled kicking and screaming into this new and better day.

Having been around the Idaho Legislature for more than 35 years, I have more than a little sympathy for legislators of both parties who must have struggled mightily on Monday over how to deal with a few dozen protesters who were determined to make a point and risk arrest in the process. Idaho is not unfamiliar with passionate protest even in the Statehouse or on its grounds. And, while not all of us would have chosen to protest in the manner of as those did who were eventually taken from the State Senate chambers by Idaho State Police yesterday, these fellow citizens do share some history with other Americans who chose much the same path of civil disobedience.  That history reaches back to a drug store lunch counter in Greenboro, North Carolina in 1960 and a factory floor in Flint, Michigan in 1937.

Idaho has too often had a dodgy history on matters of human rights. Locals in Kootenai County and elsewhere were often quicker to react to neo-Nazi hate groups in the 1980′s than were state officials. A saintly Catholic bishop once had to shame lawmakers into providing portable restroom facilities for Hispanic farm workers. The state was a very tardy adopter of the Martin Luther King Holiday and some still seem to barely embrace the importance of such a day. The current protest over basic human rights issues, and make no mistake this is such an issue, has a long and resonant history in America. The Idaho Legislature had best brace itself. There will be other days like Monday as citizens petition their government to right a wrong.

Fifty-four years ago last Saturday four young African American college students took seats at a lunch counter in a Woolworth drug store where the prevailing law and sentiment told them they could not sit. Those protests ended a few months later with a decision to desegregate that lunch counter and a student civil rights movement was born. Once in a while the smallest gesture sparks a revolution. A move to the right side of history is a curious thing. Once it is done we will wonder why it took us so long.

[Photo credit: Boise Weekly]

 

Death of a Consensus

inlFor at least the last 50 years there has existed a bipartisan consensus in Idaho regarding the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory. The consensus held that Idaho political leaders from both parties – Jim McClure and Frank Church, Richard Stallings and Larry Craig – would do what it took to protect the federal investment and jobs at the sprawling site in the Arco desert west of Idaho Falls.

The consensus did not mean that the “site,” as locals call it, would ever be free from controversy. Then-Gov. John V. Evans, a Democrat, pressured the Department of Energy in the 1980′s to end the practice of injecting less-than-pristine process water into a well that eventually made its way into the vast Snake Plain Aquifer. DOE finally ended the practice and I still have a hefty paperweight on my desk that marked the public capping of that controversial well.

Former Gov. Cecil D. Andrus, another Democrat, fought the DOE to a standstill in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s over its various waste handling processes and eventually won federal court guarantees about how Idaho’s share of the environmental legacy of the Cold War would be cleaned up and moved to move appropriate disposal sites. Gov. Phil Batt, a Republican, continued those efforts, which remain on-going to this day.

Yet even when controversy erupted over environmental issues the bipartisan consensus held. When it came time to present a united front in support of federal funding for research or environmental restoration at INL pragmatism always seemed to trump ideology. Andrus and McClure, a Democrat and a Republican, linked arms to support new initiatives at the site when both were in office. Stallings became a champion of INL funding during his time in Congress. Craig inherited McClure’s role as the Senate champion of DOE funding for Idaho.

It may be an overstatement to suggest that the long-time INL consensus has come to end with the current division in the Idaho delegation over support for the budget bill that recently passed Congress, but it seems pretty clear that political pragmatism no longer automatically trumps ideology when it comes to supporting INL funding.

Second District Congressman Mike Simpson, a long-time champion of the site, now chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on Energy and Water. It’s no secret that Simpson took over that important spot – he had chaired the subcommittee on Interior and related agencies – in order to have even more direct influence over INL funding. Just before the recent and bipartisan $1.1 trillion spending bill passed the House and then the Senate, Simpson was saying that he’d been able to reverse Obama Administration cuts in DOE spending in Idaho.

“In fact,” Simpson said in a news release on January 14, “I have increased funding for INL’s nuclear research programs, ensured full funding for the Lab’s vital security force, and boosted funding by more than $20 million for the ongoing nuclear cleanup activities in Eastern Idaho. This bill not only stabilizes funding at INL after a couple of years of uncertainty, it sends a strong message that INL’s work as the DOE’s lead nuclear energy laboratory is critical to our nation’s energy security.”

It’s worth underscoring that part of the money Simpson helped secure – beyond what the administration had proposed – funds the on-going clean-up at INL; a critical effort that both Republican and Democratic governors in Idaho have supported.

That is the kind of budget work that would have once almost guaranteed a release from the entire Idaho delegation claiming credit for protecting jobs and investment in Idaho and getting the better of a hostile Democratic administration. Instead Simpson was blasted by his Republican primary challenger Bryan Smith for being the “left flank of the Idaho congressional delegation.” Smith pointed out that the three other members of the Idaho delegation – Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Congressman Raul Labrador – all opposed final passage of the budget legislation. Just for the record the budget legislation, a product of a spending framework hashed out by Democrat Patty Murray and Republican Paul Ryan, passed the Senate 72-26 and the House by an overwhelming margin of 359-67.

Crapo and Risch issued a joint statement explaining their NO votes. The statement stressed the big national debt and the need to bring it under control and made no mention that the NO votes also had the effect of rejected Simpson’s budget work on the Idaho National Laboratory.

There are lots of ways to look at this set of facts. A NO vote on a big budget bill, even one that had strong bipartisan support, forecloses another government shutdown and was certain to pass, is a politically safe vote in Idaho these days. It is often easier in politics to explain a NO vote than to justify a YES vote, particularly given the increasingly conservative nature of the Idaho GOP. If you want to apply a particularly cynical analysis to the facts you might conclude that the three NO voters in the Idaho delegation simply calculated that they would let Simpson take the heat for passing a trillion dollar budget knowing full well that the DOE spending that he had helped secure for Idaho would be included.

But there may be a larger and more important lesson.

As I’ve written before, Mike Simpson, by any measure, is a very conservative guy. Yet his pragmatic heavy lifting in his House committee to enhance the DOE budget to the benefit of thousands in Idaho – a position that once would have demanded a rousing show of support from interests as diverse as the Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – has, in the political environment of 2014, opened him to a charge of being a big spending liberal.

Simpson is no liberal. What he really is – and I mean this as a high compliment – is a throwback to those days when passing a budget that provided stability to a major Idaho institution was cause for celebration. Simpson is a legislator in the same way Jim McClure, Larry Craig and Richard Stallings once were. Each of them considered it re-election must that they campaign on the basis of how strongly they supported the INL. Pragmatism in those days trumped ideology. It may not any longer.

We’ll see in the weeks ahead whether a serious, pragmatic legislator looking out for the interests of his district and state and determined to actually help pass a budget that funds the government can withstand a challenge that calls into question the very essence of what it means to be a legislator. Those interests that have long supported the Idaho National Laboratory better hope that pragmatism wins.


Read more here: http://blogs.idahostatesman.com/cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budget-vote/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budgetvote#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://blogs.idahostatesman.com/cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budget-vote/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budget-vote#storylink=c

A Curious, Old Rule

CapitolEXT_ERS11The Idaho Legislature convenes today and will no doubt live up to its reputation for the next 100 days or more as one of the most, if not the most, conservative legislature in the country.

It has always been a curiosity to me that such a fundamentally conservative public institution would maintain a one-off system that allows elected legislators to appoint “temporary” replacements. It is a system unlike any other in the country.

As the legislature convenes today in Boise two of these “temporary” lawmakers, elected by no one other than the person they are filling in for, are full-blown legislators with all the power and responsibility that goes with the job. The two temps are sitting in for legislators who are laid up for health reasons.

A check with the non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures confirms that no other state has such a provision. Several states, Washington and Louisiana for example, have guidelines for how a legislator can be replaced when military service is involved, but no other state allows a legislator on their own motion to designate a replacement. In the 2013 session in Oregon, for example, a very senior state senator was seriously injured in an automobile accident and missed weeks of the session as a result. Her seat, as would be in the case in the U.S. Congress, just sat empty. That is not how it works in Idaho.

At least one time that I know of the “temporary” legislator rule dramatically impacted a legislative session. That was in 1994 and then-Gov. Cecil D. Andrus had vetoed a bill that was designed to extend a tax exemption for ethanol fuel manufacturers. The governor thought the exemption had outlived its usefulness, primarily benefited one producer and took needed tax revenue from the state’s general fund. Under normal circumstances, given the partisan makeup of the legislature at the time, the Democratic governor had the votes in the state senate to sustain his veto. There was, however, no margin for error. If even one Democratic lawmaker voted with the Republican majority to override a veto the contested legislation would become law.

Bannock County was represented in the state senate at that time by a old-time Democrat from Pocatello named Mary Ellen Lloyd, who normally could be counted on to vote to sustain a gubernatorial veto. Rumors made it back to the second floor office of the governor to the effect that Sen. Lloyd might be wavering on the ethanol legislation. The Simplot Company, who benefited most from the exemption, had a big presence in Pocatello and the local senator might be swayed by that calculation. The governor wanted to confirm that Sen. Lloyd would in fact stick with him and their subsequent conversation convinced him that she would vote with Democrats to sustain his veto. Enter the temporary legislator rule.

We will likely never know the full story, but for whatever reason Sen. Lloyd used the temporary appointment rule to name a replacement – a former Democratic state senator and Idaho labor leader Robert Kinghorn - to fill her chair on the day of the override vote. Kinghorn, who also just happened to be Sen. Lloyd’s brother, then broke ranks with every other Democrat in the senate and cast his very temporary, but also very real vote with majority Republicans to override the Andrus veto. It was the only veto – he had 114 total in his 14-plus years as governor – that Andrus ever had overturned.

It was a crafty (or underhanded if you prefer) bit of parliamentary gamesmanship. Sen. Lloyd could keep her commitment not to buck the governor, but she could still engineer a veto override. I’ll let you speculate on the motives, but its likely none of the games would have been played had the temporary legislator rule not been an option.

I’m not sure there has been another case where one Idaho legislator with the ability to appoint their own replacement has so obviously impacted a legislative outcome, but you can see that the curious, old rule retains an ability to be abused. It’s worth noting that both parties use the rule frequently and I suspect most of the time for good reasons like illness, but once in a while the temporary legislator fills in because a lawmaker wants to take a trip or even desires to reward a political supporter with a couple of days under the dome.

It is an odd system for a state that prides itself on operating in such a buttoned-down, conservative way. There is not much conservative about an elected official having the exclusive power to name a “temporary” replacement whenever and for whatever reason they alone deem appropriate.

P.S.: There is an old saying in politics that no road is so long it doesn’t have a bend. Some years later Sen. Lloyd campaigned to become the full-time county clerk in Bannock County. She lost in a Democratic primary when the governor whose veto she had undone backed her opponent. That is what you call, to use another political saying, not getting mad, but getting even.

 

Bethine Church

churchesIt seems only appropriate to mark the death of Bethine Church who, for nearly 30 years after the death of her husband in 1984, kept his legacy – and the Church legacy alive – by reflecting on an enduring photo of the two of them together. In many respects they were that rare commodity in modern politics – a husband and wife team.

Bethine Church died at age 90 on Saturday. Her health had failed markedly in the last few months and, as son Chase said, she simply died of “old age.” By any measure hers was a full life.

In the masterful third volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson – Master of the Senate – the historian Robert Caro did justice to the Church partnership when he wrote of her in the 1950′s: “Bethine Church did not fit that era’s mold of the docile Washington political wife, for while Frank was new to politics, she had been born into it, into Idaho’s Democratic dynasty, the ‘Clark Party.’ She had been raised in the Governor’s Mansion; during her girlhood her father was Idaho’s Governor, one of her uncles, D. Worth Clark, was Idaho’s United States Senator; another uncle had been the state’s governor some years before. She and the young man who had fallen in love with each other in high school were an exceptionally close couple; years later, one of Church’s staffers would call their marriage ‘the longest running high school romance in history.’”

On the morning after his razor thin loss to Republican Steve Symms in the contentious, nasty 1980 campaign, I was among a small horde of reporters stamping our feet to stay warm in the damp grass outside of the Church home on Idaho Street close to downtown Boise. The house had been Judge (and governor) Chase Clark’s home and later became the Boise outpost for the senator and his political partner.

Before long Church, with Bethine at his side, stepped behind a bank of microphones to do what I expect is one of the most difficult things in politics – offer a gracious statement in defeat. The first question, as I recall, after the short and gracious statement was “what do you intend to do now?”

With perfect timing the Senator Church said, “Oh, we’ll be staying together…” I remember nothing else that was said.

The next few days, appropriately so, will be given over to tributes to the Grande Dame of Idaho Democratic politics. She’ll be remembered for her passion for the Sawtooths, and wilderness and for protecting Frank’s legacy. Until the end of her long life she maintained vigorous relationships with big names like Joe Biden and Al Gore. She encouraged hundreds of would be candidates, some of whom might have been better off taking a pass on a political race. She toyed, perhaps seriously, with challenging Symms in 1986 and wisely took a pass.

Idaho has produced really only a handful of truly outstanding and nationally important political figures. Frank Church, sponsor of the Wilderness Act, wise and informed voice on foreign policy, early opponent of the Vietnam quagmire and the senator who warned against domestic spying a generation ago, is in that elite number. Still as Church’s biographers LeRoy Ashby and Rod Gramer have written in their book Fighting the Odds, “It is impossible to honor Frank Church without honoring her. He had believed, quite literally, that she had saved his life in his first battle with cancer. She had been his best friend and constant companion; by all accounts their love for each other ran deep. He had always needed her.”

Idaho and the nation has lost a great figure who lived a great story. We will not likely see her kind again.

 

The Start of Something Big

cit7_SRX_EDWARD_LODGE_t620The United States Senate this week confirmed a new judge, Patricia Millett, to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. That court is, after the Supreme Court, arguably the most important federal court in the nation. Millett’s confirmation had been stalled for weeks over a partisan dispute, not about her qualifications, but basically over whether a Democratic president would be allowed to make an important appointment to an important federal court.

That standoff helped precipitate the recent change in Senate rules that eliminates the filibuster as a tool of the minority to thwart a president’s federal court and executive branch nominees. When it finally happened the vote to confirm the new judge was mostly along partisan lines, two Republicans – Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins – did vote to confirm.

Regrettably, in my view, partisan politics – and both parties bear some guilt – has taken on a completely outsized role in the selection and confirmation of federal judges. And, remember in the case of new Judge Millett, hardly anyone questioned her strong qualifications for the job. She has been a partner at the white shoe D.C. law firm Akin Gump, she worked at the Justice Department in both Republican and Democratic administrations and argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court. She’s qualified, but partisanship was the stage manager in this case, and unfortunately, has been in many others in the recent past.

Until the 1920′s appointees to the Supreme Court didn’t even go before a Congressional committee for a confirmation hearing. When former Utah Sen. George Sutherland was nomination for a position on the Supreme Court in 1922 his nomination went to the Senate one morning and he was confirmed that afternoon. Admittedly that pace may have been too light on the “advise and consent” role of the Senate, but now days it’s not uncommon for a judicial nominee to hang in confirmation no-man’s (or no-woman’s) land for months. It has become an awful system that will over time further erode public confidence in an independent judiciary and it doesn’t have to be this way.

A small, long ago example from Idaho involving Federal District Judge Edward Lodge (that’s Judge Lodge in the photo) makes the case that judges – and sometimes great judges – are indeed “made” by politicians acting as politicians, but that politics – if practiced wisely – can also help ensure the right man – or woman – ends up in the right job.

Ed Lodge has been on the Federal District Court in Idaho since 1989. He was nominated by Republican George H.W. Bush and confirmed unanimously by the Senate. The Judge, widely respected, even revered by those who know him and practice before him, just passed 24 years on the federal bench and all told Lodge has been a judge in Idaho for half a century. But, it’s Ed Lodge’s time before he came to the attention of the first President Bush – we can thank Sen. Jim McClure for that – that really counts in this little story.

In 1965, Lodge was laboring in relative obscurity as a probate judge in Canyon County, Idaho – Idaho did away with probate judges during judicial reorganization years ago – when a vacancy came open in the state District Court bench in Canyon County. It dawned on a couple of young, northern Idaho legislators – Ed Williams from Lewiston and Cecil Andrus from Orofino, both Democrats, that they might be able to use the Canyon County vacancy to engage in a bit of political mischief at the expense of Republican Gov. Robert E. Smylie and also help create a new judge at the same time.

Smylie, a mover and shaker in national GOP politics, was out of the state for a few days as was his habit; a habit that helped get him in trouble with voters a year later, which meant the governor had left the tending of the state store to his Democratic Lt. Gov. William Drevlow, a old-style party warhorse who hailed from Craigmont. In Idaho, by virtue of the state constitution, when the governor is physically absent from the state the lieutenant governor assumes the governor’s full powers, including the power, if he chooses to use it, to make appointments. If you understand politics perhaps you see where this is going.

According to Andrus, his good friend Williams came up with the idea of trying to convince Lt. Governor Drevlow to act in Smylie’s absence and fill the Canyon County judicial vacancy. But who to appoint? The two north Idaho lawmakers consulted with Rep. Bill Brauner of Caldwell, also a Democrat, and a well-regarded local attorney. (Yes, Canyon County did once upon a time have Democrats in the Idaho Legislature.)

Andrus recalls that another prominent Canyon County attorney and Democrat, Dean Miller, was brought into the discussions and it was Miller who suggested strongly that able young Ed Lodge, who Miller knew personally and professionally, would be a superb candidate to fill the vacancy. All the players in this little tale, save for Andrus and Lodge, are no longer with us to confirm or deny, but Andrus claims none of them were really sure at the time of Lodge’s politics. Lodge was being touted by Democrats who knew him well, after all, and only later did the legislators learn that Republican blood ran in Lodge’s lawyerly veins. Even better they thought. When the stuff inevitably hits the fan the conspirators could fall back on the fact that a Republican-leaning judge had been appointed by a Democrat. What could be more bipartisan?

But the really key thing here is that the mischief makers were not looking simply to make mischief, although that was clearly a motivation, they also wanted to see a capable judge appointed. Politics was played, but the goal of putting a capable candidate on the bench was also achieved.

“We convinced Bill Drevlow, maybe with a little help from John Barleycorn,” Andrus said, “to make the appointment. He knew it would damage his relationship with Bob Smylie, but he really didn’t care. We knew Smylie would be livid, since he must have had his own candidate.” And, one suspects, that didn’t bother the legislators either.

Judge Lodge was appointed to the state court vacancy by Drevlow – the youngest district judge in Idaho at the time – where, by all accounts, he immediately began to acquit himself with real distinction winning awards as the state’s top trial judge and serving for years as the administrative judge of the district. After a short stint as the state’s federal bankruptcy judge President Bush came calling and Lodge went to the federal bench some twenty years after his Democratic benefactors plotted to get him appointed to the Idaho court.

Andrus remembers Smylie being peeved about the whole thing, but as the man who would go on to be elected governor of Idaho four times told me recently, “Smylie could never argue with the fact that the cream rises to the top. And time has proven that Ed Lodge is one of the two or three best federal judges Idaho has ever had.”

Any way you analyze it Ed Lodge has had a distinguished and impactful career. He presided over the Ruby Ridge case, Claude Dallas was in his courtroom, financial responsibilities under the Superfund law in the Silver Valley were hashed out under his watch, and the U.S. Department of Energy was held to account for cleaning up the Idaho nuclear waste legacy of the Cold War. Judge Lodge was honored last summer for his his service and for the longest judicial tenure in Idaho history. His is quite a legacy.

Is there a moral to this little story of political intrigue? It’s entirely possible that Ed Lodge, even without the bipartisan push he got from a bunch of mischief making young Democrats in 1965, would have amassed a distinguished legal career. He might well have made it to the state district court by another route and been ultimately appointed to the federal bench to preside over all those important cases. Who is to say?

Perhaps the only moral, as the old saying goes, is that politics does – or can – make strange bedfellows. And once in a while – not as often as it once did unfortunately – strange bedfellows conspire to help along the career of an able young man, who given the chance became a truly distinguished judge and helped write the history of Idaho for the last half century.

Next time you read a news report about some judicial decision that identifies the judge involved as an “appointee of George Bush” or as a “nominee of Bill Clinton,” think about Judge Lodge. There is more to most judges – and there should be – than the partisan label attached to the person who appointed them. And think about the new and highly qualified D.C. Circuit Court Judge Patricia Millett who came so close to being denied a chance to serve at all because of, well, just politics.

There will always be “politics” involved in the appointment of judges. It’s been that way since John Adams and Thomas Jefferson fought over the shape of the federal judiciary, but too much emphasis on politics must inevitably lead to a too politicized judiciary, which only damages public confidence in the judges and our judicial system. Ed Lodge got his start on the merits. An able young man with supporters on both sides of the aisle then proved over the course of a distinguished career just what he was able to do.

I like to think that is what we call the American Way.

 

Old Debate, Same Outcome

sagebrush

The Idaho Legislature has devoted considerable time and money over the last few months to an analysis of how the state might take over the public lands in Idaho that have been owned since statehood (and before) by all of us – meaning all American citizens – and managed by the federal government.

Never mind that the effort would likely be declared unconstitutional or that the U.S. Congress would never permit such a wholesale transfer, the movement has once again gained some modest traction in the American West. This latest effort will doubtless fade, as earlier ones have time and again, when the reality of managing the land collides with the fear of having to sell much of it in order for a state to afford ownership.

As the Washington Post has reported Utah has been the most aggressive in pushing a state takeover. Utah’s governor signed legislation in 2012 demanding the federal government transfer title even though the state’s legislative counsel opined that the move had a very “high probability of being declared unconstitutional.”

Just because a federal land transfer is a fool’s errand doesn’t mean this is a new issue. Far from it. Some of us will remember the Nevada roots of the a similar effort in the 1980′s, dubbed “the Sagebrush Rebellion” when local officials in the Silver State worked themselves into high dudgeon over federal management of public lands. The movement rose like a rocket and eventually sank like a stone, but not before it had a full political run at the county and state levels all across the West.

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 he promised to reflect the “values and goals” of the Sagebrush Rebellion, but the former California governor must have know, even if his inept Interior Secretary James Watt didn’t, there was no public appetite for selling off the public’s land or for allowing it to be exploited by a rape, ruin and run crowd of exploiters. Quite to the contrary, the public wanted in the 1980’s – and still wants today – a conservation and economic development balance that demonstrates respect for policies that both conserve and carefully utilize the public lands.

An internal 1980 Interior Department analysis of the Sagebrush Rebellion – “A Old Issue With A New Name” – pointed out that agitation over control, ownership and management of Western public land is as old as the nation itself. In other words, the political winds have blown back and forth on these issues, but always the policy course has tacked in the direction of maintaining the public’s land for the public’s benefit.

I want to quote from that 33 year old Interior analysis, because it still seems so relevant to the debate today in Idaho, Utah and elsewhere:

• In 1832 the Public Land Committee of the U.S. Senate claimed that state sovereignty was threatened by federal land ownership. The rest of Congress, however, maintained its discretionary authority to manage such land without limitation and rejected the complaint.

• In 1930 the Hoover Administration proposed to cede much of the public domain to the states. The recommendation was opposed by both an eastern Congressional majority and by Western states, who having already acquired the most productive land, wanted no responsibility for, as was said, the “waste lands” remaining.

• In the 1940’s Nevada Senator Pat McCarran conducted a series of “investigations” into the Grazing Service (one of Bureau of Land Management’s predecessors) and the Forest Service, both of whom were trying to bring livestock grazing under greater control on public land. In 1946 Senator Edward Robertson of Wyoming sponsored a bill to convey all unreserved and unappropriated lands to their respective states. The BLM was formed the same year.

• In 1956 Senator Russell Long of Louisiana proposed similar legislation.

None of the legislation went anywhere, but the political heat generated was substantial in every case.

The 1980 Interior document goes on to pin the genesis of the 80′s Sagebrush Rebellion on what it termed “the pinch of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the final comprehensive articulation of national policy on how the remaining unreserved lands would be managed. FLPMA, years in the making, reflected the public realization of the enormous national values held in trust in the public lands and called for those resources and values to be managed for all Americans under the principles of multiple use and sustained yield and on the basis of sound land planning.

“Stated simply, it became clear that consideration of all possible users made the sphere of influence of certain users, heretofore unchallenged, suddenly shrink.”

It has been argued by various advocates of state control over the West’s vast public lands that the states could manage the land more efficiently. The 1980 Interior analysis asked and answered a more important question.

“Fundamentally, the question isn’t whether the States can afford to manage the public lands. They could. They could increase taxes and sell some of the land, and in the case of the energy States bet against future revenues. That’s not the right question. The question is whether the Nation’s interests are best served by such management, and the answer is no.”

Some useful information has been generated by Idaho’s current effort, including a new Congressional Research Service report that estimates, on the conservative side, that the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service spend upwards of $320 million annually managing your public lands in the state. The Idaho Department of Lands entire budget, including federal funds that the department administers, is something less than $20 million. The math, to say the least, doesn’t compute.

The Tea Party-type groups that have to a significant degree been driving the current debate must believe the transfer of lands issue is a political winner, but they may want to check that assumption. Before he was governor of Idaho, Butch Otter was the congressman who briefly advocated selling some public land in the West to offset Hurricane Katrina expenses. The future governor wisely backed off the idea when the political downside, including a potential loss of prized Idaho hunting ground, became a real liability.

From time-to-time and for far into the future we will hear of “a new Sagebrush Rebellion” sparked by some alleged misdeed by a federal agency or federal policy, yet the overall course of federal-state relations in the West is set and has been for a long, long time. Serving the broad public interest will no doubt remain the essential objective of public lands policy in the American West.

The land legislators talk about as “federal” is really “public” land, and one of the beauties of America unlike most of Europe, for example, is that the land really is owned by all of us. Even better for we westerners, American taxpayers in states with little or no public land – think Nebraska, Kansas or Iowa – subsidize the management of our public land, but we need to remember that those folks also share ownership.

We’ll continue to fight over public land management, that is the western way, but rather than continuing to argue over a land transfer that will never happen we might be better served to more constructively debate the details of land management policy, including fire, grazing, timber and mining policy, so that our kids and grand kids can be certain to benefit from the great legacy – the trust – that is embodied in the singularly American idea that all that precious land belongs to all of us.