The Battle for Freedom Starts with Our Land: an Exclusive Interview with Helen Chenoweth

Published October 1, 1999

The Honorable Helen Chenoweth is a third-term Congressman representing Idaho’s First Congressional District. She chairs the Forestry and Forest Health Subcommittee of the House Resources Committee, and serves as a member of several other subcommittees of the House Resources, Agriculture, and Veterans Affairs Committees. She serves on special task forces addressing firearms and Second Amendment rights, term limits, the Endangered Species Act, and private property rights.

Chenoweth was born in eastern Kansas and spent her earliest years in the farming community of Burlingame. During World War II, her parents moved the family to Culver City, California, where they took positions with Douglas Aircraft. After World War II, the family returned to its agricultural roots, this time in Grant’s Pass, Oregon.

Chenoweth attended Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. She moved to Idaho in 1964. From 1964 to 1975, she was a self-employed medical and legal management consultant with a national clientele. During that time she was frequently asked to speak on management and political issues in those fields. She was a guest instructor at the University of Idaho’s School of Law, and she recruited physicians to towns and clinics in the Northwest from medical schools nationwide.

From 1975 to 1977, Chenoweth served as state executive director of the Idaho Republican Party. She went on to serve as chief of staff to then-Congressman Steve Symms. After leaving Symms’ office in 1978, she founded Consulting Associates Inc., a firm that specialized in issues relating to natural resources, energy policy, environmental policy, government contracts, and political management.

A nationally recognized spokesman for private property rights, Chenoweth has received numerous awards for her votes to balance the budget, lower taxes and shrink the size of government. She spoke recently with Environment News Managing Editor Tom Randall.

Randall: You have been a crusader for private property rights as well as public access to and use of public land. What do you make of the large number of bills introduced recently by members of both parties to federalize more land and make it off-limits to human activities?

Chenoweth: It’s alarming. Our land management agencies can’t properly manage what they have now. We have a $12 billion maintenance backlog on public land infrastructure. We are closing campgrounds and other recreational facilities. Yet people want to add more to the federal holdings?

Randall: One of the most extensive and determined efforts to close land to public use seems to be that to have millions of acres of western states, including much of Idaho, declared a Wilderness Area. How have western legislators reacted to this?

Chenoweth: We refer to it as the “War on the West.” There is an affinity between my western colleagues because we all deal with the same issues that are not well understood by the rest of the United States. In Idaho alone, the federal government owns and controls over 60 percent of the land base. We take our property rights seriously.

Randall: What feedback on these efforts do you get from constituents?

Chenoweth: Our constituents are clamoring for Congressional support. I’ve received thousands of phone calls, letters, faxes, and e-mails from individuals who have been impacted in some way by oppressive and even nonsensical federal land policies. Their lives are literally being disrupted.

Randall: In your Forests and Forest Health subcommittee you have been looking into attempts by the Forest Service to deny access to National Forests by deconstruction of roads. How are they doing this and what is the current situation regarding this activity?

Chenoweth: The Forest Service has kept local citizens completely in the dark when it comes to deciding when and where to close forest roads. Forest roads in Idaho and across the country have long been used by local residents for access to the forest, and they are an important part of the infrastructure needed for long-term management of the land. They are also important for access in the event of wildfire. How can we fight forest fires when access roads are obliterated?

In Idaho, they’ve even gone so far as to build “tank traps” in the Targhee National Forest to prevent access. These traps–which are completely unmarked–represent a very serious threat to human safety. The surface of some roads was ripped to a depth of 3 feet to prevent motorized access. Nearly 400 miles of roads were obliterated by placing earthen barriers 6 to 10 feet high in the roads. Nowhere in America have we seen these kinds of extreme measures taken to prevent public access.

Too many forest roads have been closed too many times to too many people. Roads are essential in maintaining one of the founding principles behind these lands–that they are to serve multiple uses, for all people. That means access to these lands must not be denied.

I have introduced legislation that will establish mandatory procedures to be followed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in advance of the permanent closure of any forest road to ensure local participation in the decision-making process. The Forest Roads Community Right-to-Know Act has been favorably reported out of the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. I expect it to be considered on the House floor sometime soon.

Randall: What is your impression of Forest Service administrative and financial accountability in general?

Chenoweth: This is the only agency entrusted with billions of dollars in assets and they have so poorly managed them that this agency is deep in the red.

In 1998, the GAO uncovered that the Forest Service could not determine for what purpose $215 million of its $3.4 billion in operating and program funds were spent. . . . Estimated amounts of $45 million due to the Forest Service from other agencies for reimbursable services provided were double-counted in the Forest Service’s financial records.

Randall: How conscientious has the Forest Service been in maintaining National Forests and how do their efforts compare to those on privately held lands?

Chenoweth: The Forest Service has been asleep at the wheel. Over the past few decades our National Forests have been seriously neglected and poorly maintained. The result of this ongoing negligence has placed our forest lands at high risk for catastrophic wildfires, disease, and insect infestation. Our Northwest forests are a “powder keg” of explosive dry fuel. Experts testify that our National Forests are in a state of near collapse.

I believe it is critical that we act now to preserve and protect this dedication to sustainable forestry and the health of our nation’s forest treasure. I’m still waiting to receive a detailed plan to revive our National Forests from the Forest Service.

There’s no question that private property owners manage and maintain their land better than the federal government. It’s in their best interest.

Randall: On another subject, when you came to Congress five years ago, what surprised you most about the way things are done there?

Chenoweth: I was most surprised by Congress’ insatiable appetite to spend. Also, the sometimes “fast-track” process in which massive spending bills were passed in the middle of the night without proper scrutiny.

Randall: You term-limited yourself when you first ran for the House and have said you intend to honor that commitment and not run in 2000. What are your thoughts about that decision, and term limits in general, today?

Chenoweth: I am still a strong supporter of term limits, and I will step down at the end of this term. But having now been a Member of Congress, I have come to the conclusion that it is a constant learning experience. The time for a legislator to step down is when he or she has stopped learning. For myself, I can only say that I feel as though I have just begun and there is so much still to learn.

I really never had any ambitions to run for elective office. But I have been involved in government policy issues for many years, particularly in issues affecting private property rights. A number of people I respect encouraged me to run for office, and I felt that I could make a difference.

I feel this is a battle for freedom today. The battle for our freedom really does start with our land and being able to nurture the land and leave it a better place than we found it.