Wilderness vote ready for May ballot

By Lyndsie Kiebert and Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Bonner County commissioners voted Tuesday to approve an advisory vote question for the May 15 primary ballot. The advisory vote will ask whether the voter supports or opposes the proposed Scotchman Peaks wilderness area in east Bonner County.

Scotchman Peak as photographed from a LightHawk flight in 2016. Photo by Ben Olson.

The advisory vote was proposed at the commissioners’ Jan. 9 business meeting, and finalized Tuesday when the question’s language was announced.

Though there was some confusion during the meeting over a word or two, the official wording will be: “Do you favor Senator Jim Rischs’ (sic) proposal for congressional designation of a 13,960-acre Scotchman Peaks area in Bonner County?”

Bailey said the commissioners worked with people on both sides of the wilderness debate to choose language for the question that everyone could agree on.

“We wanted something simple, easy to understand and clear,” he said.

While it’s a federal decision whether the land becomes wilderness, the commissioners agreed that they will either support or oppose the proposal depending on how the county votes.

Commissioner Dan McDonald has said he personally does not support the wilderness designation, while commissioners Jeff Connolly and Bailey have said they do support it.

McDonald explained the reasoning behind the advisory vote in a Jan. 10 interview on KRFY Panhandle Community Radio.

“The battle over Scotchman Peaks started with the Friends of Scotchman Peaks claiming they have widespread support … and at first I believed that, until I started hearing from the huge number of people that were opposed to that,” he said, noting that this realization (along with a request from the Republican Central Committee) ultimately led to his Jan. 9 proposal for the advisory vote. “What’s there to lose? At least we’ll see the true tenor of the public on this.”

McDonald told KRFY that they chose to put the advisory vote on the May ballot in order to get the results to Sen. Risch’s office as soon as possible.

“(Risch’s office) did a number of open houses, and they took information there, but they were the first ones to admit that they don’t consider that information to be scientifically valid because there were a lot of people from out of state that were for it and local people that were against it,” he said on KRFY.

However, in a Jan. 11 email from Risch’s North Idaho Regional Director Sid Smith to McDonald, obtained via public records request, Smith expressed concern regarding McDonald’s comments on KRFY.

“What I want to make clear is the fact that all the numbers I relayed to you, the percentages for and against, were calculated from comments given to Senator Risch by Idaho residents ONLY,” he wrote, adding that McDonald’s comment about out-of-staters being for the proposal and locals being against it “directly contradicts the numbers” Smith quoted him during a phone call before Christmas.

“I allowed that the numbers weren’t like a scientific poll such as a Gallup or Rasmussen poll, however, it is you who are trying to make the connection to the out-of-state residents at the open houses — not me,” Smith wrote.

McDonald said his phone call with Smith “was a bit different than what (Smith) represents in the email.”

When asked whether he believes his personal opposition to the wilderness proposal may change the way he presents information to the public, McDonald said, “no more than those who support the plan have made comments that are supported by facts.”

In 2015, then-commissioners Todd Sudick and Cary Kelly, as well as Glen Bailey, unanimously passed a resolution calling for the U.S. Congress to designate the Idaho portion of the Scotchman Peaks as a wilderness.

“The Scotchmans is a perfect area for wilderness,” then-commissioner Cary Kelly said. “It’s one of the few areas that commissioners can support as wilderness. It’s kind of the exception to the rule.”

“The job of commissioners is to listen to the people and make hard decisions based on facts,” McDonald wrote in an email. “My position is that putting almost 14,000 acres away forever, with no forest or wildlife maintenance and that only serve a special interest are not in the best interest of all of Bonner County.”

According to John Sandy, Sen. Risch’s chief of staff, the county is entitled to do what it feels best, but he said the wording of the question was “wrong.”

“Risch doesn’t really have a proposal, we’re still gathering information,” said Sandy. “He doesn’t have any stand on this one way or another. … We took the input that people had a year and a half ago and submitted that as a piece of legislation, but it really wasn’t a proposal. … All it was an advisory thing. But it’s fine for the commissioners (to hold this vote). It’s their county.”

When asked if the outcome of the advisory vote would impact Sen. Risch’s decision to introduce a wilderness bill, Sandy said, “Maybe.”

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