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Tough Decisions Affect Tomorrow's Wildlife

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner once wrote of what he called one of the biggest fallacies imparted to the American West: development equals progress; progress is good; therefore development is always good.

Recently released 2000 to 2004 growth statistics for Treasure Valley communities (a population increase of approximately 43 to 76 percent) attest to the fact that Southwest Idaho has gained a reputation as a place to live and do business. High on the list of things that attract people to this locale are quality outdoor recreation opportunities and abundant wildlife resources. With the growth comes development. The tough decisions made today-decisions on where and how that development occurs-will have far-reaching, permanent impacts on the wildlife and wild lands that-at least in part-are responsible for that growth.

These are tough decisions. They are especially tough here in the West, where, for decades, economies have been driven by natural resource utilization; where private property rights reign, including a landowner's right to develop their land.

But communities, through their elected officials, have a responsibility to shape their own future through planning and zoning decisions. And individuals have a right, and an obligation, to weigh in and let their opinions be heard on these tough decisions that affect the public's wildlife and wild lands.

A string of tough decisions punctuates our state's past, with history being the final judge of whether they were the right decisions. Almost a century ago, Boise River waters were captured by Arrowrock Dam and delivered to surrounding land to make the Treasure Valley green. History has not questioned that decision. In the middle of the last century, the Snake River was dammed in Hells Canyon to provide cheap and abundant electricity. A cost was the permanent loss of salmon runs above Hells Canyon. More recently, Interstate 84 was built from Burley to Salt Lake, bisecting a key mule deer migration and winter range area to improve travel to Salt Lake City and beyond. A cost was the permanent reduction of 15,000 mule deer.

While historians may continue to debate decisions of the past, other tough decisions arrive at our doorstep.

Key among those facing the Treasure Valley are where new homes, new neighborhoods, new restaurants and stores will be built to accommodate future growth. Will development continue to occur in the valley gobbling up wheat and alfalfa fields? Will it set its sights on the arid desert to the south and east? Or will it creep further into the foothills-foothills that are critical winter range for the deer and elk that provide wildlife viewing enjoyment and hunting opportunity over a large expanse of Southwest Idaho during the rest of the year; foothills where countless valley residents recreate and frequently fix their gaze just to feel they are in Idaho?

Developments currently being considered call for large tracts of the foothills to be developed into planned communities. Today's tough decisions on whether or not to change current zoning to accommodate such planned communities or high density development in the foothills will have lasting effects on wildlife. It could be a premier place to live, but would history judge the cost in premier wildlife and wildlife habitat to be too great?

Be a part of history. Take time to learn about the implications of upcoming development proposals and then ask yourself: Do they represent progress? Ada County decision-makers will be holding public hearings beginning in September for the first of several large foothills development proposals. Weigh in. Be a part of the tough decisions.

Al Van Vooren is the Southwest regional supervisor for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.