Magic Valley Uprising

How an Idaho citizens’ coalition gunned down a dirty power plant — and what it means for the West

  • The West's New Revolutionaries

    Michael Wickes, Ray Ring

Page 4


The Magic Valley uprising combines many positive political trends in the West, which surface even amid the disasters of the oil and gas fields and suburban sprawl. More nontraditional allies are tackling issues ranging from sage grouse preservation to mass transit. As Democrats and Republicans become more competitive, many old ideologies are slowly surrendering to pragmatism. In Idaho, as elsewhere, the locals are trying to work things out.

In Colorado last month, real estate agents, homebuilders, developers and environmentalists shared the lead in trying to help landowners deal with oil and gas drillers; they nearly pushed a "split estate" law through the Colorado Legislature, and soon they’ll be knocking on that door again. In Arizona, bankers, developers and environmentalists are pushing a ballot initiative that would preserve 700,000 acres of state land as open space. And even off-road vehicle riders have raised their voices to protest plans by the Bush administration and Congress to sell off parcels of federal land (HCN, 3/6/06: Public Acres for Sale). "They like the idea of public land, where it’s owned by the American people," not by private owners who would close off recreation access, says Brian Hawthorne, public-lands director of the BlueRibbon Coalition.

"We are seeing that kind of maturing in many quarters in the West," says Daniel Kemmis, senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula, Mont. "We should expect a more sophisticated approach to these natural resource issues, as more communities come to understand how strongly their economic prosperity depends on quality-of-life factors."

Blame it on NIMBY, if you wish, the old attitude of "not in my backyard." Kemmis prefers "enlightened self-interest," a term used by French historian Alexis de Tocqueville when he studied the fledgling American democracy 170 years ago. "I doubt in most cases that it’s a matter of people saying, ‘Oh, I’m tired of fighting other people, let’s see if we can get along,’ " Kemmis says. "There is some of that, but I think, in most cases, it’s a lot more hard-headed calculation."

Much of the West, like the Magic Valley, is now staked out by a variety of well-established local interests. And no matter how fiercely the locals might argue among themselves, when faced with a common threat they can mount a vigorous defense.

Lee Halper, a Magic Valley activist who fights dairy pollution, says, "For 20 years, I’ve been trying to get people to recognize that this state has limits. Some days, I have to bounce my head off the wall, to keep from choking people." The victory over the coal plant, however temporary it might prove, "has raised the awareness of a lot of people," he says.

"Hopefully, they’re going to stay together enough to say, ‘This is just one issue we’re going to have to face, if we’re going to live in Idaho with clean air and clean water.’ And a lot of them are stating that. I look to the future ..."

The author, HCN’s Northern Rockies editor, writes from Bozeman, Montana.

 The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

Meet Idaho's Revolutionaries - In their own words, some of the Magic Valley citizens who fought the Sempra coal plant describe the uprising and how they got involved in it

The push is on for 'clean coal' - Led by California, Western states are encouraging the energy industry to move toward cleaner coal technology