It’s a story straight from John Ford, and it started, like so many Westerns, with a dispute over money.
A New York newsman moves to a 306-acre property in the middle of Idaho. There’s a disagreement with the local fire department—it’s about taxes, of course—and his area secedes. One day he takes a break from learning life on the farm, and the neighborhood posse snaps him up, deputizes him: the new commissioner for their newly formed ward of the Carey Rural Fire Protection District.
That’s how longtime County Commissioner Larry Schoen launched, by accident, his nearly 25 years in public service. After eight years in the first role, “an unknown number of years” supervising the Blaine Soil Conservation District, three and a half years on the Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission and 12 years as county commissioner, that career came to an end—or, at least, a pause—on Monday morning, as Schoen’s former colleagues swore in his successor, Dick Fosbury, who ousted the incumbent during the Democratic primary in May.
Since then, Schoen, who is 63, has had time to consider how a self-described private man transitioned to so public a life in Blaine County. And, he’s had time to consider his motto, which he attached to that career like a goal more than a decade ago: “To leave office with my integrity intact.”
He sat through plans for rampant growth, and saw them hollowed by the global belt-tightening of the Great Recession. He presided during natural disasters, fires and floods that wolfed up swaths of the Wood River Valley in quick and angry bites. He worked on wolves themselves, and other environmental fights that pitted interest against interest. There was Bowe Bergdahl, and the frenzy that swept through Hailey afterward. There were debates with Idaho Power, and Deer Creek and Camp Rainbow Gold—and thousands of other rulings, small to most everyone but the world to those involved, the discrete decisions that make up a career in politics that, at times, surprised Schoen himself.
“I’m a very private person,” he said. “You won’t find a Facebook page for me. You won’t find a lot of personal information out there. I hate having my picture taken, and I’m not very good at remembering people’s names. I’m not the sort of person you’d think of as primed for political life. But I think government service is important. I think elected office is immensely challenging. And I felt that, on a personal level, I needed that sort of challenge. I needed to try to live up to my ideals of public service. ‘To leave office with my integrity intact’—it all goes back to that.”
In fact, it goes decades further.
Schoen calls his childhood “tumultuous,” moving from New York City, to Washington, D.C., to the outlying suburbs by the time he hit high school. He turned 18 in 1973, a draft year at the ragged end of America’s involvement in Vietnam. It was a lottery—just luck that his number wasn’t called. Today, with the safety of decades between then and now, he wishes it was.
“I never did military service—I always regretted that,” he said. “I felt that at some point in my life, I needed to do some sort of serious public service. In a way, on a personal level, running for public office was my way of compensating.”
Instead, Schoen went west to college, and graduated with a degree in biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He quickly traded a career in science for one in journalism, earning a master’s in the field from Columbia University in New York and finding work in television news. The job brought him more closely than ever to politics.
“I remember covering the presidential campaign in 1984,” a race between incumbent Ronald Reagan and former Vice President Walter Mondale, Schoen said. “I remember in all the speeches, thinking how disappointed I was in the candidates. And I remember thinking I can do a better job.”
Schoen took to heart the old industry saw, that there are two sides to every story. He trained in the research necessary to deconstruct them. And, he learned to ask questions, a practice cultivated to this day.
That’s how he began farming. In 1991, Schoen quit the city. He moved to a farm in the triangle south of Bellevue named Napuisunaih Ranch, after a Shoshoni word meaning “to dream.” He sought stability—a groundedness that his upbringing lacked—and a new, rural life. It’d been more than 100 years since a Schoen farmed. His great-grandfather came to America and settled on a New Jersey farm, then nothing.
“I came to farming from scratch,” he said. “When I didn’t know how to do something, I asked.”
He approached government the same way.
“Hardly anybody has put as much effort into reading things, and parsing language,” said Len Harlig, a former county commissioner who remains a close observer of Blaine County politics. “He’s absolutely meticulous, going through materials to make sure they are correct, and accurate. He brought an efficiency to ordinances. His viewpoint was thorough, exhaustive and unaccepting of any comment not based in vigorous research. Even when you reached different conclusions, you never doubted the effort.”
His environmental record can match anyone’s in the county, according to Harlig, whether that meant advocating for conservation, or securing easements for open space and recreational access, or updating recycling and solid waste.
But Schoen describes himself as a progressive, and a pragmatist. Those combine to form a view of government that is closely tied to customer service, and much of his legacy—from internal communications, to organizational structure, to budgeting procedure—is, like the engine of any operation, hidden under the hood.
He worked on what interested him, according to Commissioner Angenie McCleary, who has served alongside Schoen for the entirety of her 10-year run on the board, and how he worked was as important as what he worked on.
“His approach to everything was to give it his all,” she said. “He was always willing to volunteer, to step up and do what needed to be done. His work ethic stood out to me—trying to make things as efficient as possible, and work for the public.”
Sometimes, ironically, that stretched out the public process. Meetings were longer with Larry in them. Schoen didn’t suffer fools gently, and could be frustrated when applicants—or their lawyers—came before the county with diligence that fell short of his own.
“Sometimes, Larry could be pedantic,” Harlig said. “He’d get riled up by people whose positions were meritless. He could have a hard time tolerating the uninformed. There were times when he reacted, and probably wished things had gone a different way.”
In the end, though, his colleagues found ordinances better for the rigor.
“As a county commissioner, Larry was a consummate professional,” said current board Chairman Jacob Greenberg. “His journalism background meant he was our go-to person to articulate policy.”
If his work as a reporter helped him explain policy, his life as a farmer helped shape it. He’s tried the three main modes of American living—urban, rural and suburban—and his view for the future of Blaine County is steeped in that experience.
“I grew up in big cities. I’m very familiar with urban living. And, I’m very familiar with rural living, now. And I love them both. I lived in suburbia as well. I’m not a big fan of suburban sprawl, strip malls, that sort of development. New Jersey, northern Virginia—all traffic, and shopping malls. Why would we want that for here?
“I wanted to live in a rural community. I wanted a rural lifestyle. I looked at a lot of other places before I picked this one. I looked at living in the Caribbean, in Europe, and I ended up in Idaho.”
His vision for it, though, has a European flavor. Denser towns, built up with urban amenities and transit. Open space around them. Fewer subdivisions in the country. More townhouses in the city.
“Some of the most desirable and valuable communities in America have some of the strictest zoning—thought-out zoning codes that try to project the present and future values of those communities,” he said. “That’s especially true of small ski towns in Europe. And that’s why they still have their charm. We don’t want to lose our charm.”
Maintaining it was part of the Blaine County 2025 planning effort that Schoen participated in during the mid-2000s, as a member of P&Z. Back then, elected officials prepared for an unending boom. There was talk of two new towns—one by Gannett, another at Timmerman Junction. Projections envisioned the population swelling to 80,000 people in 20 years. Soon, Schoen thought, development pressure would burst out into the unincorporated county like champagne past a cork.
Within two years of finishing the plan, it evaporated. The housing market imploded, the economy tanked and thoughts of growth shrunk to emergency austerity.
Now, though, he sees it building once more. The recession may have pushed 2025 to 2035, but it didn’t freeze time. In the intervening years, Schoen says, the jurisdictions have drifted apart, away from a common plan.
“I don’t know that they are all on the same page,” he said. “People acknowledge certain common values, like the need for affordable housing, the need to preserve our public lands and recreational access. The conversations really haven’t been had in a long time. Ketchum is doing its thing. Sun Valley does its thing. Hailey’s doing its thing. We need to work on a regional equation. If people are opposed to increased density in cities, but there’s development pressure, there’s only one place for it to go, and that’s out in the county. The question is, do we want to turn it into a suburbanized area? That’s a question for the community. The community needs to answer.”
Schoen’s personal answer is written across his land. He placed a conservation easement on the property curtailing its ability to be developed; those acres will never be subdivided.
The community’s response is harder to read. Fosbury routed Schoen running a campaign rooted in the need for new approaches to affordable housing in the unincorporated county. The cost of development, often, is open space.
“His primary loss was a really substantial repudiation of something,” Harlig said. “The question is, why did people give up on a 12-year commissioner, and move on to someone who hasn’t served?”
But a career in public office rarely ends on schedule, gold watch in hand. More often, it means seeing your replacement sworn in to your seat. To Schoen, that’s the inevitable reward for a job done right.
“I’ve never shied from making difficult decisions. Over time, those things rack up. …When I talk to students, I tell them if you’re going to enter elected office, your main goal shouldn’t be to get re-elected. It should be to do what’s in the best interest of the community. To uphold the law. In a very dynamic, engaged county like ours, that will leave some people happy. Others won’t be. Eventually, that catches up with you.”
So, while Schoen describes himself as a pragmatist, Greenberg has another term.
“I would judge his view of county government as that of a purist,” he said. “He interpreted it as it was intended, and was fair in its application.”
Schoen remains coy about his plans from here. His kids, now seniors at The Sage School, will be off to college in the fall. He’s considering running for a higher office, one that might take him away from home. He’s also considering a private path in business. Or, going back to school.
But, as he considers how he’ll spend a future outside the county chambers, he can’t help but look back.
“There are roles I’ve been able to play because I was a county commissioner. I’m proud of the connections I’ve made, what I’ve been able to do. This job’s been immensely rewarding—for me personally, and, I hope, for our community.”