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For the week of Jan. 19 through Jan. 25, 2000

Populated north, rural south: Blaine County’s two worlds

Blaine County’s population base and economic engine is centered in the Wood River Valley, but there’s much more to this county than the valley’s four tightly knit communities. The following article puts a finger on the pulses of Blaine County that aren’t publicized in ski magazines and travel brochures.


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

The land and the people’s connection to it is a bond as prevalent in Blaine County as anywhere in the American West.

But nowhere in the West, perhaps, is the diversity between two groups of people living within the same bureaucratic boundaries more stark and alienating than that between Blaine’s agricultural and urban factions.

Though 48 percent of Blaine’s population live in the Wood River Valley’s urban communities, over half of the county’s people live in undeveloped, rural areas, according to the Idaho Department of Commerce. And of the county’s population who live in undeveloped areas, over half are devoted to various forms of agriculture, including raising and marketing livestock and farming.

According to several agriculturally-based Blaine County residents, interviewed over the past several months, the estrangement between the Wood River Valley and Blaine’s agricultural component is very real.

In the south, seas of sagebrush and arid, irrigated desert inscribe an often forgotten story for those in the north. It is a story of a physical, lifestyle and political separation from the county’s burgeoning population to the north, farmers and ranchers said in interviews.

"This is really our life, and you see us in the courthouse and in meetings. It seems like people forget who we are," Picabo rancher Katie Breckenridge said during a recent trip to her 1,800 acre B-Bar-B Ranch in Picabo. "We’re totally out of our element in those places."

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Blaine County’s sheer size contributes in large part to the separation between its agricultural and municipal groups. It covers 2,645 square miles, more than double the size of Rhode Island and slightly larger than Delaware. Its roughly 17,000 residents have substantial elbow room.

South of Bellevue, south of the Timmerman and Picabo hills, south of Carey, in the southernmost reaches of Blaine County, there’s a finger of land, only eight miles across at its narrowest and 15 at its widest, that reaches to the Snake River. Its southern tip is known at the Blaine County courthouse in Hailey as a voting district called Yale. It’s inhabited by less than a dozen year-round residents.

Yale’s a land of rocky sagebrush plains, unrelenting lava fields and irrigated green. It’s where Split Butte, Schoodle Well and Bear Trap and Baker caves dot maps as the only significant landmarks.

It’s also a land where northern Blaine County’s politics mean little.

North county bonds, development agreements and zoning restrictions are far off and unrelated to the potato, grain and sugar beet industries that drive its economy. The arid area is roughly 100 miles from Bellevue as the crow flies.

"We’re a lot like Carey," said Yale sugar beet farmer Blaine Cook, 52, as he worked on a piece of machinery designed to help get beets into a warehouse for the winter. Cook owns a large farm in southern Blaine County, and his big, strong hands show he’s no stranger to hard work.

"I’ve been working the land since I could walk," he said. He paused, and then went back to work. Daylight only lasts about 11 hours a day during the beet-harvest season in mid-October, and Cook seemed determined to make good use of it all.

Later in the autumn day, he made time to talk.

"The main difference between the Wood River Valley and here is origin," he said. "The Wood River Valley is full of out-of-state people who’ve migrated to Idaho for whatever reason. We’ve raised our families on this land."

As the distance between life in the Wood River Valley and the rest of Blaine County grows, Cook said, the separation between agriculturally-based people and industrious Wood River Valley residents grows.

Discussing the Nov. 2 Blaine County Recreation District bond proposal for Wood River Valley recreation facilities, Cook said there’s nothing for him to gain from such proposals.

"I’ve never set foot on one of those bike paths up there, but I helped pay for ‘em," Cook said of the $1.7 million bike path bond Blaine County voters approved in August of 1988.

Carey residents, ranchers and brothers Ron and Keith Hunt have lived in Carey since 1937. They expressed similar feelings of separation from the Wood River Valley. Carey has its own community, they said, far removed from Bellevue, Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley.

The Hunt brothers were perched high in the stands at a Carey High School Panthers football game under an azure-sky this fall day, clad in baseball caps with the Panthers blue and gold colors.

"Events like this make it all worthwhile," Keith Hunt said. "It’s really a sense of community. We’ve watched these kids grow up. We can remember when these coaches were playing in high school."

The brothers agreed that Carey provides more stability to the county than the Wood River Valley does.

"It isn’t a coming and going community like the rest of the county," Ron Hunt said. "Nearly everyone who’s here has been here all their lives."

Many others at the football game expressed similar pleasure in the sense of community Carey fosters.

Carey deputy sheriff Kyle Green said, "I’ve never wanted to leave. It’s where I was raised. Mom and dad’s here. Wife’s mom and dad’s here. I’ve never even thought of leaving."

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Ranching and farming are hard work which demand different personal priorities than those valued by people outside of agriculture, Katie Breckenridge said at her Picabo ranch. Fellow Picabo rancher Rob Struthers joined her.

"We address the concerns about the livestock before us," Breckenridge said. "Our business is our livestock and our land, and they are our real assets. The animals come first."

Breckenridge and Struthers raise sheep, cattle and horses.

The two ranchers said the alienation between the Wood River Valley and ranchers like themselves seems to be growing as more people move in to the area from out of state.

"People stare at us when we go to town," Breckenridge said. "We’re not in a museum yet."

But they also agreed that the county benefits from the mix of people that are attracted to it.

"The wide variety of people—they’ve enriched my life," Breckenridge said.

"We’re all here for the same purposes," Struthers added—"to socialize with the people who are here and live on the land."

Even within the state’s agriculture community there is a perceived social gap between Blaine County farmers and ranchers and their counterparts who reside in other counties, Breckenridge suggested.

She called it the "5B animosity," a play on the county’s license plates which designate Blaine County residents.

"We hear it all the time," she said. "People want to know how we put up with the people here.

"But we are all common people. There’s a common thread between us all. Why do we dwell on our differences? Why can’t we dwell on our similarities?"

 

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