The Idaho Supreme Court delivered a knockout punch to Boundary County’s “wise use” movement Monday, ruling the county’s attempt to control public lands was illegal.
Fed up by government regulations that closed roads and set aside habitat for grizzly bears and caribou, commissioners passed the rebellious land-use plan in 1992.
The idea was to give local government control over how federal lands are managed. But the law immediately was challenged by environmental groups and 18 Boundary County residents.
The court upheld a ruling by 1st District Judge James Michaud that the ordinance is invalid because it contradicts numerous federal laws on land management.
Opponents relished the decision, saying it douses Boundary County’s self-styled Sagebrush Rebellion.
“It’s definitely put an end to it. Very simply, the court said the county cannot claim control over federal public lands. That’s all she wrote,” said Coeur d’Alene attorney Scott Reed, who argued the case against the county.
“This ruling, combined with a federal court decision last week, is a one-two punch to the county supremacy movement.”
Reed was referring to a ruling in Nye County, Nev., last Thursday. A judge there struck down a similar law in which the county claimed ownership of federal lands. A Nye County commissioner tried to exercise the law by bulldozing open a closed U.S. Forest Service road.
“For the second time this week we’ve seen that this gunslingin’ style of legal intimidation of professional land management has no place in the West,” said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League.
“Public land management is a process of consensus building rather than outrageous local ordinances.”
Boundary County commissioners downplayed their defeat and said they have no plans to appeal.
“This is as far as it goes, but the whole process was not a failure,” said Commissioner Merle Dinning. “It was a wake-up call to federal agencies. All we were looking for was a little cooperation and to be involved in decisions about surrounding public lands.”
Thanks to the “wise use” movement and the county’s hard-nosed stance, Dinning said, that is now happening. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are working with the county, which is nearly 80 percent state and federal land.
“If not for this movement we would not be involved at all. Nobody would have paid any attention to us,” Dinning said.
Commissioner Bob Graham, a former Forest Service district ranger, was less vigorous defending the law, which was passed before he took office.
“I’m sure that nationwide the public does not want local control over national resources,” Graham said. “And we did not want veto power over the Forest Service. We just wanted to be informed and a key player. I think we have achieved that.”
Boundary County’s land-use plan was patterned after the country’s first “wise use” law, passed in Cantron County, N.M., in 1989. Since then, more than 100 communities have adopted similar laws.
Dave Bodner, a rancher and party to the lawsuit against Boundary County, hopes the court ruling puts an end to further local uprisings.
“It wouldn’t surprise me to see them try and rewrite the laws in a different manner, but this ruling will make it more difficult,” Bodner said.
“It’s sad it had to go this far, but I’m sorry the county didn’t have to pay the legal fees. It would have shown the public in Boundary County just how absurd this whole thing has been.”
The Idaho Supreme Court did not award legal fees to either side.
Commissioners did not have an estimate of what it cost to defend the land-use plan. But at least $5,300 of the legal bills were paid by donations and did not come from tax dollars.