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Rural Idaho officials talk of the challenges of living amid large swaths of public land

Local officials from rural communities throughout Idaho said today that federal public lands have major and direct impacts on their everyday operations and challenges.  

During a panel at the McClure Center’s symposium at the Capitol Auditorium this morning, Owyhee County Treasurer Brenda Richards said, “There isn’t a decision that we make that doesn’t bring federal lands into the aspect, in some of the issues that we’re facing.” When moderator Marty Peterson asked her about the impact of the numerous recreationists who visit the county, Richards noted that it has few gas stations or convenience stores. “Most of the time, if you’re coming to visit Owyhee County you’re going to fuel up, you’re going to bring your provisions in from another county.” The county, though, bears costs for search and rescue, she said. “That’s hit us very hard.”

She said, “We do enjoy having people come out to Owyhee County and share in that … but there is an impact. Counties are required to provide services, and it doesn’t matter who’s visiting your county, you have to provide for that.”

Soda Springs Mayor Kirk Hansen drew a laugh when he said, “I always thought Soda Springs was quite cosmopolitan.” Explaining, he noted that mining operations on public lands in the region surrounding the eastern Idaho town draw hundreds of residents there. “We’re not the so-called always have mud on our boots type miners,” he said. “We have electrical engineers, geologists, environmental engineers, civil engineers, mechanical engineers - we have highly educated people who move into these areas to live and to work. … They enhance the betterment of the community in which we live.”

Hansen said the mining operations are “providing the standard of living that exists, and using the resources that in my mind are God-given. … We need to be very wise in the stewardship of what’s there.” Describing a situation in which a mine leached selenium into the environment and killed several horses, he said the mines now follow strict federal regulations to avoid polluting the water and land. “We need to collaborate very well with the federal agencies, and the land of many uses is very critical,” Hansen said. “We have thousands of people who are dependent upon the uses of public lands – the proper usage, that we take care of the resources that have been given to us, that they’re available and for the betterment of everyone.”

Woody Woodford, superintendent of the Kellogg School District, said, “Eighty percent of Shoshone County is state and federal lands. … They are the largest landowner in Shoshone County. As a direct result, we have 20 percent of our property owners pay 100 percent of our taxes, that burden is huge. … We believe in responsible management of federal lands, but there has to be some kind of a balance.” Shoshone County, which long was a prosperous mining area, now has a big car dealership as its major business. “Our county needs the kind of industry where we can afford to buy those cars at Dave Smith’s, and it simply doesn’t exist,” Woodford said. He said the small tax base is increasingly pinched trying to cover the costs for required services.

Valley County Commissioner Gordon Cruickshank discussed the community forest trust, in which a collaborative trust is seeking to manage 200,000 acres of federal forest land to both improve its health and make money for public services. The community has to provide for schools and roads, he said, and needs a way to generate money now that historic logging on public lands has dropped. The project is “a model, a way to show it can be done,” he said.


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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