HAILEY, Idaho • Even before developers threatened to drill into the Boulder-White Clouds for a giant molybedenum mine in the late-1960s, their presence injected a lasting shot of politics into the land.
“It is a symbolic area, not just to environmentalists as this wonderful area, but Idaho politics in a way,” said John Freemuth, professor of political science at Boise State University.
Political murmurs have since surrounded conversations about how to deal with the land. Those partisan voices have grown louder as previous efforts to make the Boulder-White Clouds into wilderness failed and groups asked President Obama to make the area into a national monument.
“I think there are political considerations to be sure, but those of us who are working to get this done, we’re trying to make those politics be good, not toxic,” said Rick Johnson, executive director of
the Idaho Conservation League, one of two groups pushing for the monument.
Many agree that a Democratic president declaring a national monument in a staunch Republican state would be a zero sum game. It won’t help or hurt Idaho Democrats and any moderates endeared because of the action won’t be enough to make Idaho a swing state.
But such an action’s effects could hold national significance as land conservation becomes an increasingly partisan topic, fodder for campaign speeches and election talking points.
“This isn’t about Idaho politics,” said Scott Yenor, also a Boise State professor of political science.
President in Search of Legacy
Late in his tenure, Obama faces an increasing gridlocked Congress and the possibility of Democrats losing their foothold in the Senate and possibly the White House.
In recent remarks, the president pledged to take action on a number of issues with or without Congress, leaving many to speculate if he would set his eyes on the Antiquities Act to create a number of monuments before leaving office.
In mid-March, he ordered expansion of the California Coastal National Monument to include 1,665 acres of Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands and signed legislation
designating 32,557 acres of wilderness in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan.
“As (presidents) get closer to walking out the door, they stop caring,” Johnson said of how their actions affect their parties. “There’s one thing they care about and that’s their legacy. And conservation is good politics. If you are (Obama), particularly at a time of a gridlocked Congress, and you are walking out the door, you are looking for, ‘What can I accomplish that endures and that people like.’ Conservation does endure and people like it.”
In that respect, Freemuth said the timing is fortuitous.
Politics of Idaho 2
When Obama takes action will matter, he said. Obama won’t want to act before the May primary or even the November general election for fear of unseating Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. Simpson faces Bryan Smith, who many consider to be a tea party candidate, in the primary and Democrat Richard Stallings in the general.
“In terms of having someone you could work with in Mike Simpson … why jeopardize a guy like that for someone you know is just going to be another polarized partisan, which this Bryan Smith is in the way I hear everything he has to say,” Freemuth said.
Popular Support for Conservation
Many agree Republicans, on the hunt in coming mid-term elections and in 2016, will use any White House land conservation push to try to sway voters to their side.
“It’s a softball,” Johnson said.
Freemuth, however, doubted the effectiveness of the GOP using that tactic.
“There is more support for (monuments) than there is a tool to use against the Democrats,” he said.
Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow for the Center for American Progress, agreed. There is “huge popular support for protected public lands and opportunities for outdoor recreation,” he said. Republicans would shoot themselves in the foot by attacking land conservation, he said, citing a recent Colorado College’s Conservation in the West poll.
“The West is a major political battlefield this year, and the poll tells us Congressional candidates would be wise to consider their positions on conservation and land use issues carefully,” said Colorado College economist and State of the Rockies project faculty director Walt Hecox.
According to the poll, 69 percent of voters surveyed across six western states, not including Idaho, are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports enhancing protections for some public lands.
Pushing a Stalled Congress
No current member of the Idaho congressional delegation has publicly backed the Boulder-White Clouds monument push, but some of their Democratic challengers have.
A bill to limit the power of the Antiquities Act, sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, recently passed the House along party lines. Both Simpson and Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, voted for the measure.
The bill would require any national monument to go through an extensive environmental review process first and also limit the president to making one monument in each state each four-year term. It heads to a Democratic Senate not friendly to such an idea, analysts said.
Lee-Ashley said there was a “large outcry” against the bill because the House has already “ground to a halt” many land conservation bills. The Center for American Progress recently released a report hoping to prod Congress to action by highlighting 10 land bills that have languished.
“And here the House is saying, ’We are also going to grind to a halt the ability of the President to set aside places,’” Lee-Ashley said.
“It’s common sense that the public should be involved regardless of whether or not Congress or the President initiates the designation,” Bishop said in a press release.
Yenor said a presidential monument push will hurt Democrats, but the damage will likely be contained in areas where they would have done poorly no matter what. Democrats get their money from the coasts and “people who want to feel good about their support for environmental issues.” The less costly and the more symbolic those environmental actions, the better, Yenor said.
“It is more of an image about themselves I think,” he said. “(Obama) hasn’t done what he wanted to combat global warming, but at least he has taken this part of Idaho, which wasn’t going to be developed much anyway, and made it subject to no development.”
Custer County Commissioner Wayne Butts disagreed that conservation has a broad spectrum of support. He said he recently interviewed 15 people in his county, which makes up most of the proposed monument. All were against the idea, including four “staunch” Democrats, he said.
Land conservation issues will activate voters — particularly such alienated Democrats — in the both elections, but more so in the presidential election, Butts said.
Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen doesn’t think Democrats will be hurt — it “only has one way to go and that’s up.” Democrats must link the labor and conservation movements to avoid such a partisan divide, he said.
“If it were a Republican president there might be marginally more acceptance, but resistance to a national monument really stems from antipathy with the federal government, in general, in Idaho,” he said.
Local, Not Imperial
Many agree the real political danger here is Obama making blunt monument proclamations without first engaging the local players. Many point to President Bill Clinton’s declaration of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument as a “bit of an overreach,” Johnson said.
“That is not how this is going to happen and they specifically said that to me when I was in Washington,” Schoen said. “This is not going to be a Grand Staircase-Escalante and people are just using that as more spin.”
A local process would “divert feelings that this is some sort of imperial gesture from the East Coast,” Freemuth said. But Lee-Ashley said Clinton’s actions spurred Congress “because they wanted to be the ones who delivered protection on a piece of land they had been working on for a long time.”
Not working locally before any designation would certainly be a disaster for Idaho’s conservation movement, Johnson said. If conservation is done poorly, it “pushes people into their corners and right now that’s partisan politics.”
“Conservation can compliment Idaho’s conservative values, but only when we don’t look like we are trying to overthrow them,” Johnson said. “We’ve learned some stuff here and, frankly, we’ve learned it from Idaho’s Republican leaders.”