Gov. Phil Batt unveiled a new focus on the environment for his administration Monday, saying it’s among Idahoans’ top concerns.
“In my four years in office, I have grown in the appreciation of the importance of the environment to Idahoans, including myself,” Batt said. “I think most of us have grown in that direction.”
In his State of the State address, Batt made three proposals:
Elevating the state Division of Environmental Quality to the status of a full state department.
Designating portions of the Salmon and Selway rivers and their tributaries as “Outstanding Resource Waters,” which would give them special protection. Turning the state’s attention to the problems posed by abandoned mines.
“In the first half of the 20th century, we paid scant attention to the scars we were leaving on the face of Idaho while harvesting our bountiful natural resources,” Batt said in his speech. “Mining, timber harvest and agriculture furnished the engine for our economy, and they operated with little control over their environmental impacts.
“In recent decades, we have changed our emphasis on natural resource production from the bottom line only to protection and sustainability. This is a good shift in focus, and in some cases is long overdue.”
Batt’s comments won immediate praise from the Idaho Conservation League. “We were glad to hear it,” state issues director Scott Brown said. “I think it’s a reflection of the growing interest that the public at large has in environmental protection.”
The DEQ, which now is a division of the state Department of Health and Welfare, can become a stand-alone department with little added cost, Batt said.
“All we have to do, I think, is change some lines of authority,” he said.
The governor said he hoped the move would end confusion. In water testing, for example, he said there’s now confusion on whether testing is being done for health purposes or for environmental quality reasons.
But the main motivation, he said, is to reflect the issue’s importance.
“I think we need to recognize that environmental quality is among the most important things that Idahoans have. … We need to give it that status.”
Idaho is limited to 20 departments, but because of recent consolidations, the move wouldn’t put the state over the limit.
Batt noted in his speech how previous governors, including Cecil Andrus, helped Idaho move toward improving its environment.
“It’s a flow of Idaho’s history that we’re going to make our environment better and better, at the same time allowing people to make a living.”
Sen. Gordon Crow, R-Hayden, said he was pleased with changes the DEQ has made under Batt’s administration. Some have criticized the agency’s new focus on cooperative efforts with businesses rather than enforcement.
“The DEQ has made huge strides in getting the carrot tied back to the end of the stick,” Crow said. “I think it deserves department status.”
Batt said he has drafted the Outstanding Resource Water legislation along with the Board of Health and Welfare and others. Similar legislation was killed late in the session last year.
All river segments targeted for the designation are inside wilderness areas, Batt said. He told the Legislature, “I encourage your support.”
On mining, Batt praised legislators for updating the Idaho Surface Mining Act last year.
“We are proud that Idaho imposes some of the most stringent reclamation requirements of any state,” he said. “This year, I recommend that we turn our attention to the size and scope of abandoned mines - those that are often beyond the reach of the laws we apply to modern mining. Then, we can take further actions to protect the health and safety of our citizens.
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