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Environmentalists strike out in Idaho

  BOISE, Idaho - Environmentalists took a thrashing in the 1994 Idaho legislative session, which ended on April Fool's Day.


With conservative Republicans running the House and Senate, the legislature passed laws that enhanced industry at the expense of the environment.


"When it suited them, the powers that be shut us out," said Mexlinda Harm, lobbyist for the Idaho Conservation League.


Wendy Wilson, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, agreed. "There was a feeling that supporting environmental issues would not win any sympathy with the local voters."


Legislation passed in the three-month-long session included a measure that makes it a felony for anyone to "solicit" or "conspire" to block a "lawful" timber-harvesting operation in Idaho. The bill was an attempt to gain more legal leverage against Earth First! protesters at the Cove-Mallard roadless area near Grangeville, Idaho, and their backers.


The legislature also blocked environmentalists, such as Hailey architect Jonathan Marvel, from bidding on state grazing leases if the lessee is operating under a grazing management plan; Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, however, vetoed the bill.


In addition, the legislature prevented cities and counties from enacting local laws pertaining to mining development that are tougher than state environmental regulations.


Meanwhile, environmentalists teamed up with timber industry lobbyists and water users to write a bill to create a statewide endangered species office. Its purpose is to allow the state to be more aggressive in trying to keep rare plants and animals from becoming endangered.


But Idaho Farm Bureau lobbyists, who helped write the bill, backed out of negotiations at the eleventh hour. The measure passed the Senate but was killed in the House Resources and Conservation Committee, a panel dominated by farm and ranch interests.


"That was real painful," Wilson said. "We made all kinds of changes in the legislation to suit the Farm Bureau, and then they still came out and killed the bill."


Major revisions in water law were slam-dunked through the House and Senate in the last two days of the session, but a bill on groundwater cleanup never got a committee hearing.


"Groundwater contamination is a really big issue that affects 90 percent of Idaho's drinking water supply," Harm pointed out.


But industry lobbies had no interest in cooperating with the legislation, and Sen. Laird Noh, chairman of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee, said there was no support for bringing the bill forward.


Wilson and Harm attributed environmentalists' lack of success to a backlash caused by new environmental restrictions advanced by the Clinton administration. Noh, a sheep rancher and Nature Conservancy board member, warned environmentalists early that their issues would take a backseat to keeping the state's resource industries afloat.


"At this point, the political pendulum has swung back too far in the other direction," Noh said in a mid-session interview. "With regard to grazing, the focus now is on policies that may destroy the entire industry. I think we've seen almost the same thing with the timber industry, we're witnessing the same thing with irrigation and our water rights ... In my view, it's time to come down pretty hard on the other side of the equation."


In Wilson's view, the legislature's reluctance to work with environmentalists will force the activists to seek relief at the federal level, using such levers as the Endangered Species Act, federal reserved water rights and Clean Water Act.


"I've really tried to cooperate on the state level, and I've been a really good kid," Wilson said. "But now, we don't have any choice. They're forcing us into the federal arena."


* Steve Stuebner





Steve Stuebner writes frequently for High Country News from Boise, Idaho.