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The Laura Moore Cunningham

Issues & Passions
By Bruce Reichert

If you like playing in the outdoors, chances are you appreciate all the public land here in Idaho. You might feel a little different about things, though, if you're a county commissioner trying to balance a budget with virtually no tax base; or if predators have cut into the elk population in your favorite hunting area. Wolves. Wilderness. Water. Weeds. Wildfire. Over the years, we've tackled them all!

Wild Fire

A wildland firefighter looks at enormous billowing smoke clouds in the distance

What happens when the extreme becomes the norm, when something you thought you understood is now literally off the charts? That's the question fire officials were asking themselves on August 20, 2007, as all conditions pointed to another monstrous fire season, similar to that of August 20, 1910. We devoted an entire show to the new face of wildfire.

"As soon as you start throwing in people's homes," explained Tom Boatner of the Bureau of Land Management, "our tactics have to change to protect the homes. It's made it more expensive because we have to bring in more resources and more expensive resources to try to protect people's homes."

Outfitter Doug Tims watched a fire along the Salmon River in 2007. "At one point you look off in the distance and you can see the trees that are 75 to 100 feet high, and you've got flames that are going up 400 or 500 feet above them. And you realize this is something on a scale that you've never seen before."

One of the fires we documented was the 2007 Castle Rock fire that threatened Ketchum and Sun Valley. Sawtooth district ranger Kurt Nelson laid out the problem for us. "We are entering into a period where we have climate change on the large scale affecting how we fight fires. We're going to have to be much smarter about it."

This 2008 program won numerous awards, including a First Place from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Idaho Press Club; a Telly; and a CINE Golden Eagle award from the Council on International Nontheatrical Events.

War of the Weeds

rush skeletonweed

There's a silent epidemic that is changing Idaho in some very insidious ways. Invaders with strange sounding names – leafy spurge, dalmatian toadflax, tansy ragwort – are costing Americans billions of dollars each year, and the end is nowhere in sight. In fact, this is a war that may not be winnable.

In this 2004 program Dale Bosworth, Chief of the Forest Service, expressed his concerns. "Rush skeletonweed, back in the early 1960's when we first fought it, was a quarter of an acre. There's three million acres now with rush skeletonweed. And that's what really got me personally alarmed. It was huge, absolutely huge. The effect on biodiversity, the effect on recreation, the effect on wildlife, the effect on water quality – all those things became very, very apparent to me."

This program won numerous awards, including First Place from the Idaho State Broadcasters Association for Best Agricultural Show.

Wilderness in the 21st Century

River of no Return/Salmon River

Nothing gets people riled up quite like the topic of setting aside even more wilderness in Idaho. After the landmark passage of the Owyhee Canyonlands wilderness, with the assistance of Republican U.S. Senator Mike Crapo, and the introduction of a new wilderness proposal for the Boulder-White Clouds by Republican Congressman Mike Simpson, we figured it might be instructive to explore how our concept of wilderness has changed in the last fifty years.

You knew it was going to be an interesting show when Rick Johnson of the Idaho Conservation League and Sandra Mitchell of the Snowmobile Association started the program off with this exchange. "Wilderness is the gold standard that our government can provide a landscape," said Johnson. "And we have places that deserve the gold standard." Sandra Mitchell retorted, "Does Idaho need any more wilderness? I would say No, we don't. We already have 4.5 million acres of wilderness." This 2010 program won numerous First Place awards, including an Edward R. Murrow Award.

Wolves in Idaho

Two wolves howling

It's a creature of legend, an animal capable of impressing us with its teamwork and parenting skills, while at the same time shocking us deeply. The return of this large predator to Idaho delighted many and thoroughly angered others. There seems little question that wolves can thrive in Idaho, with the prey base the Idaho Fish & Game Department has helped nurture. But getting society to accept wolves, now that's another matter! We profiled wolf lovers and wolf haters, and let them tell their own stories.

The man in charge of wolf re-introduction in Idaho, Carter Niemeyer of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said, "Most people don't even understand what a wild wolf is all about. And so there's just a lot of fear and misconception on the one hand, and on the other hand they resemble someone's pet dog; and so you elevate them to a status where they're noble, majestic, and man's best friend. The real answer is that it's somewhere in the middle of all this."

This 2009 program won a handful of Gold Medals and First Place awards, including a regional Emmy and an Edward R. Murrow Award.

Mining Idaho

A miner works with mining machinery

Mining helped jumpstart Idaho's entry into the community of states. And with the price of gold and silver being what it is these days, mining has made a comeback in places like northern Idaho's Silver Valley.

The Silver Valley, near Coeur d'Alene was once the richest silver producing region in the world. But in 1981, the price of silver forced the closure of the mines, throwing thousands out of work. Then, in 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency declared a 21 square mile area of the Silver Valley a Superfund site, signaling to the world that this was poisoned ground. We explored all this in our 2005 program, "Silver Valley Rising," which won an Edward R. Murrow award.

We got to revisit the Silver Valley in "Mining Idaho," as silver mining was on the up-swing. "Superfund was yesterday's story," said geologist Earl Bennett. "We were cleaning up the sins of the fathers, so to speak. The companies that are here now do not have those kinds of practices. They can't do them by the environmental law that we've got, and they don't want to do them. Their intent is to be good neighbors."

It seems that, for most Idahoans, mining is fine, as long as it doesn't affect the quality of the drinking water. And that, said John Robison of the Idaho Conservation League, is sometimes what happens. "There may be gold up in the mountains in Atlanta, but the real treasure is clean drinking water in the Boise River for our community. And it certainly is more precious than gold."

This 2008 program won a Telly, and First Place awards from the Idaho Press Club and the Idaho State Broadcasters Association.

The People's Land

A packtrip in the Sawtooths. Credit: Jay Krajic

It seems that Idahoans are always up for a spirited debate about the management of our public lands. More than sixty percent of Idaho is federally administered, so what happens on those millions of acres pretty much affects us all. It's a topic we have explored in a handful of shows over the years.

"We're concerned about species recovery," said John McCarthy of the Wilderness Society. "There's fuels both around communities and uncharacteristic fuel loads out in the forest. We are in this thing together, and it's very complicated and time is ticking."

Even the governor weighed in on the issue. "The biggest problem with the federal land is nobody is paying attention," said Idaho Governor Butch Otter "When you have bug infestation, the fine fuels aren't removed or controlled; when they won't take care of their noxious and invasive weeds, they may well look to the states as a partner and say, we will let you have some of the proceeds off those natural resources because we can't afford to go in there and establish a good forest health base. If we can help them with their forest health, it will protect our state land forest health."

Much of the clean water that originates in the West comes from our public lands, so these lands are definitely worth worrying about. "And what we have left is what we have left," noted retired U.S. Forest Supervisor Tom Kovalicky, "and now everybody wants a chunk of it. if you follow some of the works of the Iroquois nation, when they made a decision, they made it for seven generations, and we don't do that. So let's get into the seventh generation way of looking at things, and maybe we can make this worthwhile worrying about."

This 2011 program was nominated for a regional Emmy and won numerous awards, including a First Place PBS award.

View a list of our public affairs shows from over the years.