Molly Ivins 

Idaho ranching gives Lone Star columnist pause

AUSTIN-I have been to Idaho and so am feeling better about Texas

This may sound odd, since the Great State is frying away down here: It's so hot that the railroad tracks are warping, the poor farmers are losing everything, and we're baked brown all across Texas. Idaho, on the other hand, remains its spectacularly beautiful self, laced with gorgeous rivers and trout streams, snow still on the mountains, the glorious smell of pine forests and wonderful scenic vistas, and it's cool even in August.

Still, though Texas may be represented in Congress by Huey, Dewey and Louie (Dick Armey, Tom DeLay and Bill Archer), at least we don't have to claim Republican Sens. Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne, and Rep. Helen Chenoweth. Sheesh, what a bunch of darbs.

Try this for people's representation: Kempthorne slipped a rider onto the 1999 Defense Authorization Bill that will expand the Air Force bombing range in Idaho's Owyhee Canyonlands by 12,000 acres, which in turn will impact at least another 2 million acres, despite the following facts:

The U.S. Air Force has said in court it doesn't need an expanded bombing range in Idaho and already has existing bombing ranges in Idaho, Utah and Nevada.

Public hearings over the past 10 years on this proposal have averaged 6-1 against the expansion.

The area is not only pricelessly beautiful, a sister of the Grand Canyon with some of the most dramatic whitewater rafting in the country. It is also the ancestral burial grounds of Paiute-Shoshone tribe, and these Indians are already assaulted daily with sonic booms and low-flying jets.

But that's not the best part. It turns out that a rancher named Bert Brackett, who is also a big giver to the Republican Party in Idaho, runs cattle on the land in the expanded bombing range. He doesn't own the land, he's just been leasing it for $3,000 a year. Now, if this expanded bombing range goes through, Brackett can still run his cattle on the public land, but his cows could be traumatized, so Sen. Craig wants to compensate him-with up to $1 million. Bracken's daughter happens to work for Craig. Nice, hey?

The matter of grazing permits in Idaho is beyond funny.

Jon Marvel of the Idaho Watersheds Project, which is hell-bent on getting cattle out of Idaho rivers and streams because they destroy the riverside, has been having some wonderful adventures. At one permit auction, Marvel opened the bidding at $30, and the local rancher who had held the permit said, "That's too damn much. I'm not bidding." The rancher then appealed to the Land Board, which awarded him the lease. After a two-year legal fight, the Idaho Supreme Court said the board couldn't give a permit to someone who hadn't even bid. A new auction was held, the rancher bid $10, Marvel bid $2,000-and the Land Board awarded the rancher the lease.

Marvel has exposed the good-ol'-boy system that allows these permits to be sold off for a fraction of their market value, costing the taxpayers an arm and a leg. Of course, this makes him about as popular in Idaho as a sick whore trying to get into the seminary. About 80 percent of the population of Idaho lives in urban areas (if you consider Twin Falls a city), and as near as I can tell, they all love the wilderness. Yet they continue to elect people dedicated to destroying it in the name of "multiple use." "Multiple use" means you let the welfare ranchers, the timber companies and the mining corporations destroy whatever they want to and then pretend you are protecting the wilderness.

The Idaho Land Board is comprised of the state's top five elected officials, including Ann Fox, the superintendent of public instruction, who theoretically would have a special interest in maximizing grazing fees since the money goes to the schools. However, Fox has said, "It's important to keep all these leases in the hands of ranchers because Idaho's economy is dependent on them."

Actually, public-lands ranching provides one-seventh of 1 percent of the employment in Idaho and one-third of 1 percent of the gross economic product. Fox also has said she doesn't think the children of Idaho need more academic courses, but they do need shooting ranges.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.


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