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Are we still loving Idaho lands to death? It's time for a conversation about ‘re-creating’ recreation

Dr. Emily Wakild is Cecil Andrus Endowed Chair for Environment and Public Lands.
Andrus Center for Public Policy
Dr. Emily Wakild is Cecil Andrus Endowed Chair for Environment and Public Lands.

Cecil D, Andrus, the logger who rose to become Idaho’s only four-term governor and ultimately engineered the conservation of millions of acres, would have been more than a bit interested in participating in an April 18, 2023 conversation.

The conversation, presented by The Andrus Center for Public Policy, is called "Re-creating Public Land Recreation." A virtual option will be available for those who cannot attend in person.

Dr. Emily Wakild, Cecil Andrus Endowed Chair for Environment and Public Lands, says recreation on Idaho public lands is no longer simply an afterthought or weekend diversion.

“What we've seen happen in the last few decades is that recreation as an economic driver…and anchor within these communities. And it outstrips economically many of these traditional public land uses,” said Wakild. “It's reshaping the landscape for both good and for bad.”

Wakild joined Morning Edition host George Prentice to preview the event, talk about the intersection of best practices and tension and Idaho’s delicate balance with endangered species.

“This is the time for us to step back and think about ways to empower users to share their vision for the landscape with public lands managers, and to think about ways that we can steward these places we love so much to make sure that they're there for future generations.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. I'm George Prentice. Good morning. For better or for worse, our environment is ever-changing. For better, there are best practices in stewardship of the environment. For worse, there is tension over which path is best toward that stewardship. Unafraid of resolving tension and with an eye toward best practices, we are particularly interested in this year's Andrus Center Environmental Conference with the theme of “Re-creating public land recreation.” Dr. Emily Wakild is here. She is the former director of the Environmental Studies Program at Boise State, and she is the Cecil Andrus Endowed Chair for Environment and Public Lands. Dr. Wakild, good morning.

DR. EMILY WAKILD: Good morning.

PRENTICE: Let's talk a little bit about that responsibility, that engagement. Is it fair to say that we are at a crossroads of managing our responsibility of public lands?

WAKILD: It is. We're at a really important transition in terms of the ways that public lands, anchor communities and public lands, especially in the West, have been really important economic forces for development, whether that's timber or mining, grazing, a whole slew of areas that have provided rural communities with economic development. And what we've seen happen in the last few decades is that recreation as an economic driver and as an anchor and a way to appeal to vibrancy within these communities has become a new force. And it outstrips economically many of these traditional public land uses. And it's reshaping the landscape for, as you said, both good and for bad. There's new technology and that brings new recreation opportunities. There's greater attention to access for people that haven't been recreated in the past. That started going out during the COVID pandemic and using all of the benefits of the lands, whether that was, you know, looking at wildlife, hiking, fishing, hunting, riding an ATV or a bicycle or a horse. And all of those opportunities are really changing our relationships with the land and also creating new pressures on especially federal agencies, but also state agencies who manage the lands and have to deal with infrastructure, staffing and and some of the ways that that the public is able to engage with those benefits. And so we're at a crossroads because we have a good opportunity right now to bring people to the table and consider what it would look like to work collaboratively across jurisdictions and to sort of plan and manage this new normal. Right. This really high access level, this tremendous amount of of energy that that is reaching out and using recreation and to put the users in conversation with the managers over how we can work together to think about what the new needs are and to partner for a future for everyone using these public lands.

PRENTICE: And in recognizing that indeed we're also talking about the permanent home of abundant wildlife, is it also fair to say that we seem to be at a crossroads on species protection? There's more conversation about possible delisting of some species, including here in Idaho. At the legislature, there's a resolution in regards the possibility of delisting grizzlies; and we have a regular conversation about delisting wolves.

WAKILD: And we're 50 years into the Endangered Species Act, which is a really important milestone. And it's worth thinking about the ways that managing for species does promote a vibrant wildlife and the ways that it maybe doesn't work as well as it could in order for thinking in order to think about sort of more holistic ecosystem wide management and more collaborative, especially with tribal partners, but also with state and local agencies, more collaborative approaches to management. And there are a number of species that we can think about that do this in ways that are perhaps less dramatic. So beavers, for example, are a keystone species that was never listed and never managed, for they were almost extirpated within Idaho and they're back, right? And the benefits that they're creating by working on the landscape for other species, salmon and steelhead, for example, and also for ranching are a really interesting juncture for thinking about the ways that wildlife can be managed across different animal levels and across different wildlife populations. I think the conversation about recreation and wildlife is also a really interesting one because we don't know a lot about what. Some of the impacts on wildlife are of increased access. And there hasn't been really conclusive research on some of the new technologies. But we do know that there are historic tensions over wildlife management. And listing and de-listing is one of those places where people can come together and think about what the longer-term goals are and the ways that these competing uses and the ways that both human infrastructure and technological infrastructure can be used to pursue a larger landscape goal. And I think the time is right for doing that. And I would also say that there's another interesting intersection that often falls out when we think about public lands and uses, and that's the urban one, and especially the rebounding of urban wildlife has been a tremendous success story of the last 50 years. And it's been largely accidental, right? It hasn't been sort of an intentional idea to bring wildlife back to suburbs and cities, but in the ways that we've made planning uses and the ways that that people have decided to build yards and landscapes and parks and restore rivers, they've created really abundant habitat for a lot of species. And this is also a new challenge and one that brings with it a diverse set of interests that can weigh in on how it is that our government entities and our management agencies are approaching some of these challenges.

PRENTICE: It wouldn't be public radio if we did not mention beavers in Idaho, and particularly beavers parachuting into Idaho.

WAKILD: And I'm teaching a class on it right now. George So it is top of the mind and, and yes, engaging students in in research around some of these challenging issues. And in a place like Boise where we have a river that's been irrigated and plumbed and sort of piped and yet the beavers are back and they're trying to make it into their own habitat. Right. And it's a really wonderful thing to hear from students. I just saw a beaver on the greenbelt. Right. But then it's also a really challenging thing to make space for them in our city and in our communities and to think about what those experiences, those encounters with wildlife mean and how they are so much a big part of Idaho's storied history of really creative management.

PRENTICE: Let's talk about engagement. For certain, the Andrus Center Environmental Conference attracts those who do this for a living, plus scholars and students. But can you talk about where and how this connects to…well, just about anyone.

WAKILD: Absolutely. So many people know that Cecil Andrus was Idaho's only four-term governor. And even in the 90s, in his last term, he was talking about we might be loving the West to death. And this idea that that the places that we love get too much use and really have a number of people that are placing pressures on them is one that many people can relate to if they've headed into the foothills, or they've gone out for a weekend of camping and been unable to locate a spot in a place they used to go without reservation. Right. I think many of us have a story about recreation and how it's changed in our lifetime, and that speaks to a lot of people if they're part time recreators and or if they are, as you mentioned, if they if this is their life's work, to think about how to enhance the experience and how to create more access, some people in gateway communities are having even greater pressure. The rise of numbers of people on this new level of use that isn't seeming to to go down right. It's really the new normal. And so even in people that don't go looking for it have kind of had it come to them. And we invite everybody to be part of this conversation across these communities and partners and providers especially because this is an issue that that can provide great enhancement to our lives. Right. And recreation and time on a trail can give us respite whether we're on foot or bicycle or an ATV. But often it also creates conflict, right. Conflicts over the type of use and the compatibility of different kinds of use. And this is the time for us to step back and think about ways to empower users to share their vision for the landscape with public lands managers, and to think about ways that we can steward these places we love so much to make sure that they're there for future generations. And I really think… and the Andrus Center's legacy stands for a collaborative path forward and for convening these conversations so that we can talk through the challenges of collaboration and of funding and of policy, but really by putting the users and the recreators at the heart of the story, we can think about the big range and work to shift the paradigm towards a durable and equitable future.

PRENTICE: Thinking of interaction and conflict. I'm thinking of what's happening currently in the community of McCall with an abundance of wild deer. The deer have broken down their hesitance to approach humans… because people are feeding the deer. And as lovable as the deer may be, management is going to be a challenge.

WAKILD: It is. And you're right, they don't have predators, human or otherwise within the city limits. And they are a big challenge. I personally learned to ski in McCall riding a city bus up there in the 1990s. And McCall is a community that is durable and is engaged in a lot of these conversations. Land managers live there, but also providers and recreation facilities and it's a great example of a rural gateway community that's facing pressure for the management of wildlife, but also for the demands of people and the challenges of housing and staffing, but also employability within the agencies and those challenges in making sure that the agencies have the mechanisms they need to get the talent within their ranks to be able to provide the professional management input and the creativity, to be able to put plans together to manage not just the deer inside the city, but some of the challenges outside of it as well.

PRENTICE: And then there are the instances of predators… of mountain lions, etc…. whether they be here in Boise and more often than not, in the Wood River Valley. And in those communities people who may be new to Idaho in those communities, they're thinking, “Oh, my gosh, how did this happen?” Well, welcome to Idaho.

WAKILD: Absolutely.  And I think our awareness of the flourishing of these populations around us is changing as more and more people have phones or they have game cameras or they have doorbells that record these animals at night. And so, we can see them in new ways and see the ways that they are very much in our footsteps. Right. And all around us. And I think this is a revelation that can be really empowering for people to think about how coexistence with these populations not only has happened in the past, but it's one of the beautiful, wonderful things about Idaho is that you can have that happening at the same time.

PRENTICE: Okay. So, we are circling Tuesday, April 18th. The conference features no less than the director of the Bureau of Land Management, Tracy Stone-Manning, and former Montana governor and the Chair of the BLM Foundation, Steve Bullock. Dr. Wakild, give us the 101 on how to attend.

WAKILD: We are open for registrations. We expect a really full crowd. And you can go to the Andrus Center website and register. You can buy a table and even sponsor a student to attend the conference. The conference includes breakfast and lunch. It's a full day event and the agenda is packed. As you said, the BLM director. We have three panels that follow, three constituent groups, state and local governments, federal and tribal entities and partner and user interests. And they'll all talk about collaboration, funding policy and give examples of each of the ways their organizations move this work forward.

PRENTICE: She is Dr. Emily Wakild, Cecil Andrus Endowed Chair for the Environment and Public Lands. And again, the conference is Tuesday, April 18th. We look forward to that. And for now, Dr. Wakild, thanks for giving us some time this morning.

WAKILD: So good to talk to you, George.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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