Call me a local and forget about my grandpappy


I live in Lemhi County, Idaho, but nobody else in my family ever did, and recently, that's become a problem. I love the boiled-down democracy of city council meetings, the frank discussions of local school boards, the drama of planning and zoning hearings – and no, I'm not kidding. I find local politics fascinating, and I've have rarely met an opportunity for public comment that I didn't seize. 

But now, some of my fellow citizens are trying to insert what I lovingly call the "grandpappy clause" into our local system of democracy. This most recently arose as our Lemhi County Planning and Zoning Commissioners entertained revisions to the county's comprehensive plan and development code. 

Perhaps I'm crazy, but this seems to me like a fantastic time to come together as a community and outline what we love about this natural wonder we call home. We love our farms and ranches, the open space they provide, the county fair, the sweeping view of the Beaverheads, the Salmon and Lemhi rivers, steelhead fishing, elk hunting, seeing ospreys swoop down on wriggling trout. We're nestled between the Continental Divide and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, and we're waru of suffering the fate of communities such as the Bitterroot Valley of Montana and Idaho's Teton County, where local people watched as subdivisions swallowed up agricultural ground. The resulting traffic and the financial strains on schools and law enforcement swallowed up local treasuries. 

In Lemhi County, people are aware of the need to plan for the future. Hundreds of residents have already weighed in on a county plan, changing wording and challenging old assumptions. But as our planning and zoning commissioners prepare to vote on the new development code, a new clause has been proposed, one that details not where your parents were born, but where their parents were born.

Some of my fellow residents have suggested that if your testimony doesn't begin with the phrase, "My grandpappy settled in Lemhi County (insert number) years ago…," your comment should be placed in a pile labeled "Transplants, vocal minority or strangers who have come from other states." 

I am not from another state, thank the good Lord, but I proudly fall under the first two labels. My husband and I transplanted ourselves from the Idaho desert to the mountainous Salmon seven years ago, and we've never been sorry. I believe that this remarkable part of the world is a place my people would have loved, if they had not ended up high-centered on the lava rocks of southern Idaho long ago. 

As for being part of a vocal minority -- well, guilty as charged. Democracy means more to me than majority rules. I believe innovation happens when someone attempts to try something new. More than a few changes in the world have come about just because of a vocal minority. My grandpappies would be proud of me if they thought I was playing that role -- being a vocal minority in this or any other community in the world. 

Settling on a comprehensive plan may not sound exciting, but it is important. If enough citizens care to become involved, these documents can respect the culture of a place and its people and also chart the course ahead. The last thing a comprehensive plan should do is disenfranchise a broad cross-section of a community's citizens. 

Fewer than 8,000 people live in Lemhi County, and so the locals celebrate when a new surgeon, a fiddle player, a Little League baseball coach or a family with straight-A students moves to town. The county treasurer doesn't hesitate to add new homeowners to the tax rolls. We don't require most of our newcomers to apply for a temporary work visa. 

The first night I spent in our new home in Salmon sealed my fate. I woke up at midnight and saw a herd of elk in the moonlight. The still-snowy peaks of the Continental Divide stood out in silhouette, and I heard Jesse Creek's spring runoff warble through my window screen. Since that first night, this has been my home. We'll raise our children here, and someday my ashes will mingle with this sandy soil. 

The notion that multigenerational residents should receive preferential treatment in local democratic processes is shortsighted and bigoted, and, quite frankly, it stinks … a lot like a grandpappy's old boot. Sooner or later, after all, everybody can use a new pair of shoes.

Gina Knudson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She lives and rabble-rouses in Salmon, Idaho.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Grandpappy's birthplace
Larry O'Hanlon
Larry O'Hanlon
May 13, 2009 02:20 PM
You said it Gina! I have run into the same bigoted, idiotic attitude in Nevada and New Mexico. Every speaker at a meeting starts with how many years they have lived there, as if that magically makes their opinion more valid. My response is usually something along the lines of "I, like Jesus Christ, was not born here, but I still have a valid opinion."
I agree
Kathleen Hersh
Kathleen Hersh
May 14, 2009 05:45 PM
I have always chuckled at politicians who brag about being third generation Oregonians. To me that says that their grandparents were smart and since the inheritance of intelligence isn't clear, it is hard to tell if the current generation is smart or if inertia has set in. I like the man who came to Oregon for a job opportunity and turned down promotions three times because that would have meant leaving or the young people who move here because this where they want to be and then put together part-time or temp jobs until they find a way to stay. "Converts" are often the people with the vision to see how to preserve the important things and to see how to change the things that need to be changed.
Be grateful you're not in New Mexico
Elaine Gorham
Elaine Gorham
May 27, 2009 10:54 PM
Forget grandparents, in NM unless you can trace your family to the conquistadors (and curiously, Native Americans don't count), you're a newcomer.
Blog post in response
John Gear
John Gear
Jun 03, 2009 03:58 PM
I loved this so much I blogged about it:


<b>Your family came here when? I can top that: I AM an Oregon Pioneer</b>

The terrific High Country News has a great essay from an Idahoan titled "Call me a local and forget about my grandpappy" (subscription required -- and well worth it!), where a woman notes the same peculiar habit that is also common in Oregon: starting every public pronouncement by locating the number of generations between you and your pioneer ancestors on the Oregon Trail.

That HCN essay made me realize a couple things:

First, pioneers tended to be the kind of folks who left where they were to get away from people who determined a person's social standing by referring to the person's family. In other words, whenever you start off by saying "As a fifth-generation Oregonian . . . " you're saying "I'm the kind of person that my pioneer ancestors fled from."

Second, people who emigrate to Oregon today have more in common with your ancestors than you do, because we packed up all our things and moved to this beautiful state just like they did. We are pioneers, in other words.

We didn't have the luck to be born here, but we did have the luck to see how much worse it can be elsewhere, in places where they despoil their wildernesses and pave over their best land. And, like your pioneer ancestors, we found that our destination was already inhabited. Be glad that we are treating you much better than your pioneer ancestors treated the inhabitants they found here.
Oct 29, 2010 07:25 PM
Let me preface this by saying that Salmon is truly the most tightly-knit, warm community that I have ever been a part of. I am so thrilled to be here, though I have not been here long by anyone's account. Having been a resident only a year, I fall under ALL 3 of the aformentioned ill-fated categories (though I have been an Idaho native 10 years.) I think it is rather silly to discount the input of any transplanted person who is here under any auspices aside from retirement. This is not an easy workforce to enter! It has been difficult for both my boyfriend and me to find meaningful, better yet well paying work. We have since found a niche here that fits very comfortably and makes us feel loved and welcome, but this is not an easy place to thrive. I have personally not felt any uneasiness from anyone wary of newcomers. On the contrary, I have felt embraced by nearly everyone I have met here. Financially and residentially, however, things have not been as rosy for us--which was certainly as expected. We had realistic views of moving to a new town, knowing no one and having no specific work prospects, but there have been far fewer options for us in Salmon than we would have in other more connected-to-the-outside-world communities. Neither of us will be inheriting a house, a plot of land, or a business from our parents. To live here, we truly must stay committed to being here and experiencing this beautiful place--day by day! I can only surmise that other people moving here without family resources would have a similarly difficult experience. Transplanted people like ourselves have to work harder than average to stay here and make things work for our families. I believe that affords us the right to be seen and heard as a part of this community. Furthermore, I think I am correct in asserting that a simple deviation from "local majority" opinion is not adequate grounds under which a valid taxpayer's vote could be discarded. We pay our dues daily, by making marginally more than minimum wage and struggling to find a humble place to settle into in order to be a part of this warm, lovely community and its surrounding grandeur. Most of us, whether we were born here or arrived by our own volition, remain here because we share the desire to live on the fringe. We are all here on the edge of wilderness, huddling together with limited resources, just so we can be a part of one of the last real frontiers in America. We are all wild people trying to live simply, and I think we owe one another respect for that common thread alone.
Otherwise, we'd all be in Ketchum.....