SANDPOINT — Bonner County commissioners decided on a split vote on Tuesday not to modify the wording of a ballot question regarding the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness.
Wilderness designation opponent Dan Rose urged commissioners to add the word “federal” to make it clear to voters which lands would be subject to the designation. He also wanted the voters to indicate whether they support or oppose the designation.
Under the current language, the ballot question only asks voters whether they favor the designation.
But commissioners Glen Bailey and Jeff Connolly saw the addition of the term “federal” as a unnecessary redundancy because the wilderness designation can only be applied to federal lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service.
“Wilderness is federal in nature. It takes a federal act of Congress to approve the wilderness,” said Bailey, the board’s chairman.
Connolly added that the approved ballot language is already clear and doubling back on decisions to tinker with them could have troubling consequences on how the board conducts its business.
“This is going to set a horrible precedent,” he said.
Commissioner Dan McDonald lobbied for the amendments, contending they show responsiveness to constituents’ concerns.
“Really, today is an exercise in listening and rethinking. It’s important not to build a mound and stand on it. We need to make sure we’re listening,” said McDonald.
Bonner County Clerk Michael Rosedale, the chief elections officer, also supported the amendments because it made the ballot question as clear as possible.
“You have the power to do that with absolutely zero downside,” Rosedale said.
Supporters of the ballot amendment contended that the new language would make the question crystal clear, while other argued that it would muddy the issue or serve as an f-bomb meant to subtly but effectively blow up the ballot question at the polls.
Assessor Jerry Clemons said invoking the world “federal” could have a damaging effect because the term has enough baggage in Bonner County to require more than one bellhop.
“People that don’t know any different are just going to vote ‘no’ because the ‘federal’ word. I’m not sure that’s fair to the other side,” Clemons said.
Celeste Grace was equally blunt.
“Adding the word ‘federal’ is just politicizing it.” said Grace.
Phil Hough, executive director of the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, argued that the amended language would muddy matters because federal ownership of lands is not exclusive to the Forest Service and the ballot question in its current iteration clearly identifies a defined wilderness proposal advanced by U.S. Sen. Jim Risch.
“By inserting [the word ‘federal’] in there, it implies that there’s some option that they have, which they don’t,” Hough said, referring to Congress. “It actually lends to some confusion.”
The ballot language amendment ultimately came down to a vote. Connolly and Bailey opposed massaging the language, while McDonald supported it.
Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.