At issue: Land
For people fighting to keep regulators off private and public lands, new battlefronts emerge every year.
Thirty years ago there was no U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or state Department of Ecology inspecting lands, rivers and businesses.
Ten years back, endangered salmon and owls weren’t holding up timber sales. Six years ago, there were no stringent wetlands rules, no threat of Snake River drawdowns, no Growth Management Act.
Just three years ago, there wasn’t a White House crusade to boost grazing fees or a move afoot to fatten the rule book governing the Spokane River shoreline.
Emboldened activists now are responding with campaigns to peel back regulations and wrestle control of the land from politicians and bureaucrats.
Five Eastern Washington and North Idaho counties have adopted resolutions that attempt to seize local control of all land within their borders.
More are expected to try.
The uprising spreads with growing evidence of regulations that seemingly defy common sense.
Margo Thompson, a Christian school teacher near Chesaw, Wash., can’t turn 11 of her 12 acres into a public campground because yellow lady slippers grow there. The threatened plants happened to be in full bloom when a state regulator visited in June 1994.
Bill Brown, a Sandpoint, Idaho, developer, spent $5,000 and two months last year to convince federal wildlife officials to let him build a housing development near Lake Pend Oreille within a mile of a bald eagle’s nest.
The U.S. Park Service cited Charles Kringen in 1989 for maintaining a trail below his Lake Roosevelt home. Kringen was busted after a park officer discovered the retired man used a weed-whacker on the federal end of the path to the lake.
The U.S. Forest Service recently took almost two years to approve a request by a private Idaho County landowner to haul his own timber along a half-mile stretch of a federal logging road in North Idaho.
Adding to the lands conflict is a White House that strikes many as insensitive and ignorant.
First, Vice President Al Gore writes a brainy environmental book about saving the planet; then, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announces he wants to be the first Cabinet member to blow up a Western dam.
“He’d be better off to keep his mouth shut,” says Cecil Andrus, two-time Idaho governor and former U.S. Interior secretary under President Carter.
Andrus says the Clinton administration botched potential solutions to western land-use crises such as grazing fees and mining rights.
“The politicians brought (this uprising) on themselves by being less sensitive and more dictatorial in blatant disregard of the wishes of the people,” Andrus says.
Washington state politicians helped galvanize land rights groups with the 1991 Growth Management Act. The law funnels construction into the cities, angering people who had counted on developing their rural land.
Richard Epstein, a University of Chicago law professor, calls Washington’s land policies “Leninist.”
“I’ve been to Washington state, and you have a serious problem out there,” says Epstein, author of a book on government regulations.
Chuck Gardner still grouses about his collision with Spokane bureaucrats. The retired antique dealer bought 250 feet of riverfront in Peaceful Valley and set out to build his dream home.
When he went to get the building permit, he received a list of unexpected requirements. After two years of challenging them - and spending $7,300 on an attorney - he surrendered in 1991.
To build his Clarke Avenue home, Gardner had to give the city a 6-foot easement for a potential waterfront trail, and sell a 50-foot lot - at what he considered a $4,000 loss - to the city parks department.
“It’s blackmail,” Gardner says.
The city of Spokane is now considering new, more detailed, shoreline restrictions. The old rule book had 18 pages of regulations. Its proposed replacement has 71 pages.
Regulations trigger activism. Consider the Ferry County Action League.
The group bloomed out of a battle for control of the Kettle River, a healthy vein of mountain water snaking through northeastern Washington.
When the U.S. government tried to label it a “Wild and Scenic River” in 1991, horror stories spread:
The feds will decide what can be built on the banks! They’ll tell us what colors we can paint our homes! We’ll lose control of the river!
About 50 residents gathered to plot a counterattack in 1991. They bombarded the office of Washington’s then-U.S. Sen. Brock Adams with telephone calls until the proposal was dropped.
The next county battle was even more of a rallying cry.
In early 1993, the Legislature considered new mining rules that could have shut down Ferry County’s biggest mine.
The action league sent the state Capitol a 54-foot fax of letters opposing the plan, and beat it.
The group has since muscled its way onto most every county board and agency.
“Some people would view that as a threat,” admits Stan Schneider, one of the action group founders. “I see it as democracy in action.
“The land revolt feeds on suspicions the government wants to phase out natural resources jobs.
“I think there’s a ploy to put us out of business, to get rid of us because we’re too independent,” says Kenneth Grumbach, a third-generation Eastern Washington rancher.
Years back, nobody ever looked in on his ranch, he says. Now relentless oversight from regulators and environmentalists takes a toll, he says.
Grumbach wants his 3,500-acre ranch to stay in the family forever, but lately finds himself thinking about subdividing it. He isn’t sure he wants to stick his son with the headaches of ranching.
George Enneking tried to explain the region’s land crises to an assembly of fellow county officials from across the country.
The affable Idaho County commissioner put it this way: “The problem is that Big Brother government is telling us we can’t make a living anymore at what it is we do for a living.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BUREAUCRAT BRIDGES A RIVER OF RED TAPE Neal Carroll says nobody confronts more overbearing environmental regulations than bureaucrats. The Spokane County bridge engineer is still amazed by what he had to go through to fix a road sliding toward Hangman Creek. Last summer’s project called for placing a dirt berm near the creek to support the county road. To even consider the project, the county had to agree to build a half-acre wetlands to make up for the potential wetlands buried by the berm. Carroll needed approval from the county’s flood plain department and shoreline commission; the state’s wildlife, ecology and natural resources departments; the federal Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On the last day of the comment period, a federal wildlife official in Seattle asked for more time to study the proposal. Her problem? She couldn’t read a fax sent by the Corps of Engineers, which insists all documents be shrunk to fit on 8-1/2-by-11 paper. She then apparently went on vacation. Eight months later, Carroll got the go-ahead. No changes were necessary. “We don’t want to screw up the environment,” Carroll explains, “but the system has gotten so encumbered with bureaucracy it’s silly to me.” Next spring, county officials will plant Pacific willows, mock orange, alders, birches, larches, cottonwoods, firs, willows, brown dogwood and ocean spray in the half-acre next to the creek. County taxpayers spent $38,000 just to get the permit. The entire project cost about $100,000, including the wetlands creation, which Carroll fears will be washed away by high water in the next few years.