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Complaint alleges Idaho county officials violated open meeting law with land use workshop

June 22, 2022 Updated Wed., June 22, 2022 at 4:02 p.m.

By Nicole Blanchard Idaho Statesman

An Idaho prosecutor is investigating after a watchdog group alleged that Custer County commissioners violated the state’s opening meeting law by having an event with a group known for anti-public lands stances.

Accountable.US, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, sent a letter this week to Custer County Prosecuting Attorney Justin Oleson asking him to investigate a gathering held May 5. In order to attend the workshop, put on in partnership with American Stewards of Liberty, residents had to pay $125. The event cost the county between $6,000 and $7,000, according to Boise State Public Radio reporting.

Accountable.US argued that the entry fee made it “practically impossible for ordinary Idahoans to attend” the workshop. Idaho’s open meeting law requires that any meeting of a governing board for a public agency be open to the public unless the board meets requirements for an executive session. Executive sessions are typically reserved for personnel matters, property acquisition and other discussions involving exempt or sensitive information.

Oleson told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview Wednesday that he’s looking into the complaint. The Statesman has reached out to American Stewards of Liberty and Custer County Commission Chair Wayne Butts for comment.

Group alleges open meeting law violation

American Stewards of Liberty is a Texas nonprofit that says it works “to protect private property rights and the liberties they secure.” It has been vocally against President Joe Biden’s “America the Beautiful” initiative, also known as the 30x30 plan, for its promise to protect 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030.

According to an advertisement, its May 5 workshop in Challis aimed “to teach us and prepare us, as members of the public and commissioners, how to hold productive meetings with representatives of federal agencies, with the purpose of integrating local land use plans with agency plans.”

The ad said attendees would hear about the 30x30 plan, which the county commission formally opposed in a unanimous resolution, as well as upcoming national forest revision plans and county land use plans.

Accountable.US argued that the discussion of forest revision plans and county land use means the meeting should have been open to the public.

“Forcing the public to buy an expensive ticket if they want to witness government deliberations fundamentally violates the access and transparency the Open Meetings Law requires,” the group wrote in its letter to Oleson.

The group urged Oleson to investigate a possible violation of the open meeting law and said that if a violation did occur, any actions taken during the May 5 meeting be declared void. It also asked Oleson to consider levying a fine of up to $2,500 on any commissioners who participated.

Oleson told the Statesman that he understood the workshop to be an educational meeting.

“It clearly was not a board meeting,” he said.

American Stewards of Liberty

Accountable.US has been critical not just of the Custer County meeting, but of American Stewards of Liberty in general.

“Not only did the Custer County Commission’s pay-to-attend public meeting violate open meetings laws, but it was also a bad investment of taxpayer dollars,” said Jordan Schreiber, director of energy and environment at Accountable.US, in an emailed statement. “American Stewards of Liberty has a concerning history of pushing bizarre conspiracy theories to advance its anti-conservation agenda. Worse still, they have siphoned more than $700,000 from other local governments to pay for their work. In some years 90% of what they raise has gone to pay the six-figure salaries of the married couple who run the organization.”

According to a High Country News article published in 2015, Custer County had paid American Stewards of Liberty more than $23,000 by August 2014.

Butts, the commission chair, told Boise State Public Radio that workshops like the one at the center of the open meeting complaint have been beneficial to Custer County in the past. He said the Forest Service — which manages the majority of the county’s land as wilderness areas, national forest or the Sawtooth National Recreation Area — is more proactive about including the county in its plans as a result.

Accountable.US and environmental groups like the Center for Western Priorities said American Stewards of Liberty has concerning stances and ties to anti-public land movements. American Stewards co-founder Margaret Byfield, who attended The College of Idaho and spoke at the May 5 workshop, is the daughter of Nevada ranchers who were part of the original Sagebrush Rebellion. That movement grew out of complaints about federal land management and included efforts to transfer federal public land to state control.

In its “guide to fight 30x30,” American Stewards of Liberty calls the conservation initiative a “land grab,” concerns echoed by the Custer County Commission’s resolution.

Trent Loos, a rancher and radio host who speaks at anti-30x30 events for American Stewards, claimed in an opinion piece for an agricultural publication that environmental initiatives like 30x30 have their roots in Nazi Germany. Loos has also spoken out in defense of the armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which was led by Idaho gubernatorial candidate Ammon Bundy.

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