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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Political Hot Potatoes

Air Date: Week of

Jyl Hoyt reports from Idaho on how controversies over usage of the state's natural resources are dominating upcoming gubernatorial and congressional elections. Candidates are coming to loggerheads over mining, timber, and salmon fishing, versus wilderness preservation.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As the midterm elections head into the final stretch over the next few weeks, environmental issues are looming large in several western states. And in Idaho, they could prove decisive. Management of the state's minerals, forests, and rivers, dominates the race to succeed outgoing Democratic governor Cecil Andrus, a strong environmental advocate. And the size of Federal wilderness is also being debated in a key race for Congress. Jyl Hoyt of member station KBSU has our report from Boise.

(Whistles, clapping, shouts: "One, two, three, four!" Drum rolls.)

HOYT: The high school marching band leads the Lumberjack Day's parade in Orafino. The celebration brought candidates for the Congressional and Governor's races to this timber town in northern Idaho.

(Truck horns)

HOYT: Republican Congressional candidate Helen Chenoweth rode into town on a logging truck. She's a local girl, and receives a warm welcome when she moves through the crowd.

(Man: "Fight for industry here now." Chenoweth: "I will, believe me. I mean, like a badger. Like a badger.")

HOYT: Chenoweth promises to "fight like a badger" for industry, because timber and mining in Idaho have declined in recent years. Environmentalists blame low mineral prices, timber overcutting, and mechanization for the hard times. But Chenoweth and many natural resource communities in Idaho blame the environmentalists, who want to tighten mining regulations, save endangered species, and add more wilderness. Helen Chenoweth.

CHENOWETH: I am opposed to one more new acre of Congressionally designated wilderness.

HOYT: Chenoweth's opponent, 2-term Democratic incumbent Larry LaRocco, tried and failed to add more wilderness to the 4 million acres already set aside in Idaho. Chenoweth says more wilderness would cost more logging jobs. She also wants to start mining in Idaho's Sawtooth National Recreation Area, a razor-edged mountain range full of icy lakes. Chenoweth, a natural resource consultant, says such positions are mainstream. But her opponent is airing radio ads characterizing Chenoweth's stand on environmental issues as right-wing.

(Commercial: "Now she's bashing LaRocco because he's trying to stop a dam on the Payette River, the place my kids went rafting just the other day. What on earth is she thinking?" "Oh, who knows? I mean, she's taking the most extreme stand on this one, too. Even Republicans...")

HOYT: LaRocco's attempts to place himself in the mainstream comes amid what he says is a strong surge of right-wing money and resources coming into the state. LaRocco, a former stockbroker, says Chenoweth's campaign reminds him of 1980, when a strong conservative movement put Ronald Reagan in the White House and defeated LaRocco's former boss, the late Idaho Senator Frank Church.

LaROCCO: We had to put up with the far right and the radical right in 1980. I think that in some ways this 1994 race is a rerun of the 1980 race of the independent committees coming in and the resurgence, the re-energy of the right wing.

HOYT: The most contentious debate between the 2 Congressional candidates is their views on Idaho's dwindling salmon runs. The state hasn't had a regular salmon fishing season in more than 15 years. LaRocco blames 8 hydropower dams along the Snake and Columbia Rivers for the salmon's decline. Restoring the salmon could affect irrigation, livestock raising, shipping, recreation, and hydropower, in Idaho and downriver states. Chenoweth insists that salmon couldn't really be endangered because consumers can buy various species of salmon in a can at the grocery store.

CHENOWETH: And when we list the salmon as an endangered species, and yet we can harvest the salmon, and either can it or sell it over the butcher's counter, then it makes a mockery of the law.

HOYT: But that salmon probably doesn't come from Idaho rivers. LaRocco retorts that Chenoweth's stance is making a mockery of Idaho. LaRocco supports the salmon, but appears vague on what price the state should pay to help the fish recover.

LaROCCO: The salmon is endangered, and it's threatened, and we have to do things about it. It's going to change our way of life here for a while, hopefully not in any egregious way.

(In a bustling crowd: "Hi, how are you? I'm Larry EchoHawk . I'm running for Governor of Idaho. You could be shaking the hand of Idaho's next governor.")

HOYT: Salmon is also an issue for the Democratic candidate for Governor, Larry Echohawk. EchoHawk, who's hoping to fill the seat of outgoing Democrat Cecil Andrus, has made the salmon issue a major campaign theme.

ECHOHAWK: They're a magnificent animal, swimming a thousand miles from the ocean to the high mountain spawning areas of Idaho, and I think they deserve to have a solid effort to try to protect them.

HOYT: EchoHawk insists salmon can be saved without destroying other economies. Unlike Idaho's Congressional race, EchoHawk's Republican opponent, Phil Batt, agrees with the need to save the fish, but says he has clear philosophical differences with EchoHawk on natural resource use.

BATT: ...resource industry. He believes in more of a preservationist attitude. He's a great ally of President Clinton and the other people on the national scene who are restricting our resources in every manner.

HOYT: Linking EchoHawk to the Clinton Administration's efforts to reform mining, grazing, and timber, could be an effective strategy. The President is increasingly unpopular throughout the west, and came in third behind Perot and Bush in the 1992 election in Idaho. But analysts suggest that Idaho's Republican party is so far to the right that even some Conservative voters may feel more comfortable with the Democrats. Polls indicate that EchoHawk, a Pawnee Indian and a political moderate, is ahead. The wild card in both the Gubernatorial and the Congressional race is how the flood of new residents will vote. Many came for Idaho's pure air, whitewater rivers, and vast reaches of wild country. Old-timers tend to view Idaho's natural resources as tools to make a living. Democratic Congressman Larry LaRocco says Idaho's newcomers helped send him to Washington for 2 terms. And although Chenoweth is giving him a tough fight, analysts suggest he'll likely hold onto his seat. And voters will probably put Democrat Larry EchoHawk in the Governor's office. Despite the anti-incumbent, anti-Clinton, and Conservative mood this election season, resource conscious voters and Conservative Idaho may well buck this national trend. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Boise.



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