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Custer County hosts event with opponents to Biden’s conservation plan

Sawtooth Mountains behind an agricultural fence.
Matt Guilhem
Boise State Public Radio

Custer County is hosting a day-long workshop Thursday with a national group at the center of opposing a Biden administration conservation initiative.

American Stewards of Liberty is a Texas-based nonprofit that advocates for private property rights. Among other things, it trains local governments on how to assert themselves to federal agencies through the “coordination process,” a term in some major environmental laws that instructs the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to work with local entities.

Its co-founder, Margaret Byfield, a graduate of the College of Idaho, is the main speaker at Thursday’s event in Challis. Her father, Wayne Hage, was a Nevada rancher whose legal battles with the federal government over grazing permits made him a dominant figure in the Sagebrush Rebellion.

Custer County has brought American Stewards to Idaho to hold coordination trainings in the past. High Country News reported in 2015 that the county had paid the organization $23,000 by 2014.

County Commissioner Wayne Butts said those trainings have served the county well. Now, representatives from the federal and state agencies come to their meetings monthly. 

“Instead of the Forest Service coming to us and saying, ‘Well, we just finished closing this road,’ or, ‘We just finished shutting off this ditch,’ they come before us now,” Butts said.

Thursday’s event, officially sponsored by the county, is another coordination training. The price for the public to attend is $125 per person, and the cost to the county of hosting the event could be around $6,000 or $7,000, though officials were not certain of the exact total.

Byfield will also speak about the organization’s new central focus: opposing the Biden Administration’s conservation strategy called the “American the Beautiful” initiative, otherwise known as 30 by 30. Its goal is to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

American Stewards thinks this will amount to a federal “land grab” — and Butts agrees. The county paid for him to travel to Nebraska last month to speak at the organization’s national conference, the “Stop 30x30 Summit.”

The event was hosted by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and keynote speakers included former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado.

“The audience will learn from the experiences of Custer County, Idaho, where the government owns 97 percent of the land, offering a realistic view of what living under the control of the administrative state entails,” a web post about the summit states, suggesting what Butts would speak about.

Custer County contains parts of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

Many groups say the land grab theory is unfounded. For one, very little has been released about what 30 by 30 will entail. An initial report from the Biden administration affirms private property rights will be protected.

“There is nothing we have heard that indicates there’s going to be increased acquisition of federally-managed public lands,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, the external relations director for the Idaho Conservation League. He said the initiative might not affect Idaho very much.

“Significant chunks — more than 30% — of Idaho is already protected in some way, shape or form, as public lands or wildlife management areas, or local parks, and already provide accessibility to natural areas and open spaces for many Idahoans,” Oppenheimer said.

However, he said, as Idaho’s population grows, there are more opportunities for increasing access to open space in the state’s urban areas, like Boise, Twin Falls and Coeur d’Alene.

Still, Butts worries that 30 by 30 will mean more Custer County land will be set aside as wilderness or national forest land and that it could lower the county tax base. The commissioners signed a resolution opposing the federal initiative last year.

“We’ve been promised that because we have so much wilderness that we would not be one of the ones on the chart,” Butts said. “But we don’t trust the government.”

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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