The Idaho Conservation League is questioning Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's objectivity and fairness after an industry lobbying group was hired to summarize public comments that will be used to decide the fate of Idaho's vast roadless areas.
The Idaho Council on Industry and the Environment (ICIE), which has board members representing mining, logging and cattle interests, was awarded a $35,000 contract by the Idaho Association of Counties to do the job.
The governor's office claims it had nothing to do with the hiring and that the ICIE will in no way influence decisions.
"The counties hired that group to do that, not the governor's office or the state," said Mike Journee, Kempthorne's press secretary.
The nation's roadless areas are undergoing a management overhaul after the Bush administration opted last year to sink President Bill Clinton's Roadless Rule and develop its own plan, called the Final Rule.
"Idahoans across the state deeply value their national forests and clean rivers for hunting, fishing and camping with their families," said Jonathan Oppenheimer, a conservation associate for ICL, one of the state's most powerful environmental groups. "They deserve to know they are being listened to by fair-minded people, not industry lobbying groups with an axe to grind and a financial stake in the outcome."
The process of developing Bush's roadless rule started at the county level, where local residents recommended how they want their roadless lands managed in the future. Those recommendations, which are due in the governor's office by March 1, could include opening the land to mining, logging, road building or other forms of development.
If Kempthorne wants to make any changes to current roadless prescriptions, he must petition the secretary of agriculture by Nov. 13, 2006.
The ICIE was hired to summarize the public comments from each county in Idaho south of the Salmon River. Northwest Management, a forestry consulting firm based in Moscow, was hired to take care of the counties north of the Salmon River.
Kelci Karl, policy analyst for the Idaho Association of Counties, said the reaction to the ICIE's hiring was unexpected.
"I didn't know their connections to the industry. It was never discussed," Karl said. "It was just, 'Can they do the job?' And their job is to summarize the public comments. They have no role in the decision."
Jim Caswell, the administrator of the Office of Species Conservation who was hired to assist the governor with the roadless rule in Idaho, reinforced Karl's statements.
"They are assembling a record, that's all they will be doing," he said, adding that the original public comments will be attached to the ICIE's work. "We'll be going through it all again, and if anything is misrepresented, it will be easily looked at."
But Oppenheimer still thinks the deal is questionable.
"How they synthesize the information is pretty important," he said. "It's believable that a bias against roadless area protection would shine through in that situation."
Last week, the state of Washington joined Oregon, California and New Mexico in a lawsuit challenging the Bush administration's Final Rule.