SANDPOINT — Bonner County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to place the Scotchman Peaks wilderness proposal on the ballot in this May’s primary election.
Under Idaho Code, county commissions have the authority to place on the ballot any issue before the citizens.
The Bonner County Republican Central Committee urged the county commission to avail itself of that option in order to try and determine whether the majority of the county supports or opposes designating nearly 14,000 acres in Idaho as wilderness.
The wilderness designation is a decision which rests with Congress, although commissioners said the outcome of the vote would influence whether the board will continue to voice support for the proposal.
Commissioners Glen Bailey and Jeff Connolly have voiced support for the designation, while Commissioner Dan McDonald has voiced opposition to restricting uses of such a vast swath of forest.
Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness has spent more than a decade carefully sowing support for the designation and played up the diversity of that support. Supporters include timber and mining interests, in addition to outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists.
But some claim the degree and variety of support was overstated, which they said helped persuade U.S. Sen. Jim Risch to introduce a wilderness bill for the acreage in Idaho. Opponents of the designation contend they hold the majority view.
Commissioners have also been on the receiving end of countless emails which either argue for the board to support the proposal or to depose it.
“It’s important — if we really want to know whether or not there’s widespread support for this in the county — to see who’s willing to come out and vote for or against it,” said McDonald.
Connolly said he was not opposed to a vote, although he did express unease with setting a precedent for dealing with contentious issues faced by the board.
“My biggest concern is this the way the county is going to start doing business?” said Connolly.
McDonald and Bailey, however, said an advisory vote would likely be the exception rather than the rule when it comes to sorting through difficult issues.
Assessor Jerry Clemons questioned whether a vote would generate a reliable metric because voter turnout in primaries can be as low as 12 percent.
“Is that really advisory?” Clemons asked.
“It will give us an idea,” said McDonald.
Friends of Scotchman Peaks Executive Director Phil Hough did not voice any objections to a vote, although he sought assurances that voters who are not affiliated with an official party would be provided ballots. Elections official Charlie Wurm said the question would be listed on all ballots.
Commissioners said the ballot language would be unambiguous and free of sleight of hand in the wording.
“We just want a simple ‘do you want it or don’t you want it?’” said Bailey.
Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.com.