Idaho's Plutonian Landscape


Craters of the Moon, Idaho

Idaho's politics is like its geology. Deep beneath the surface are what vulcanologists call 'plutons' of hot magma which periodically, and unpredictably, erupt to cover the landscape. These eruptions of liquid fire from the depths of the Earth have created the famous Craters-of-the-Moon lava flows and formed the hot rocks that now drive the geysers of Yellowstone. The Idaho high desert features three two-million-year old cinder cones which mark the underground passage of Yellowstone's now famous "hot spot" that blew up, forming the Island Park Caldera 600,000 years ago. The most recent eruption, now called "Hell's Half Acre," flowed just 4,500 years ago over what is now farmland halfway between Idaho Falls and Blackfoot.

Man, not to be outdone by nature, has stored 40 years worth of plutonium-contaminated waste on the desert of the Snake River plain. Certainly, after roiling underground for a long time, like volcanic magma, another human artifact, the militia movement, burst explosively on the national scene with the bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City last April. Idaho politics shares with the legacy of nuclear weapons, and the fundamental heat engine of the Earth a common feature. All are plutonian processes that can sweep aside anything that stands in their path.

The ancient Greeks understood the atomic basis of matter and were adept at transferring a metaphor of the nature of existence into politics. For instance, Persephone, daughter of Dementer and Zeus, was abducted by Pluto, Lord of the Underworld. A mitigating effect was that she was allowed to return to the surface each spring. The Weaver incident, an icon for the militia movement, had no such happy ending.

A light on the horizon

A coalition of human rights, civil rights, and political activists has formed an anti-extremism organization in Idaho. The purpose of the organization, says one organizer, is to pull together currently "fractured efforts" aimed at countering a "national hate movement." Participants at the coalition's first meeting held in Boise on November 3 included the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, the Idaho Women's Network, the Ada County Human Rights Task Force, and the Idaho Democratic Party.

A coalition spokesman told the Idaho Statesman that groups like the Aryan Nations, militias, Christian Identity Movement, and the Idaho Citizens Alliance are part of a "well-oiled national structure." Mary Daley, the Northwest Coalition's project director in Idaho, said, "These [groups] may deny that they are part of any other group, but their ideology makes them part of a movement.

Idaho's militia movement was not pleased with this turn of events. Samuel Sherwood, head of the Blackfoot, Idaho-based U.S. Militia Association charged that human rights groups were pushing peoples' "hot buttons" to try and get press and raise money.

Speaking of money

Returning to plutonian processes, some have said the militia movement is like a failed star, one that could not achieve the critical mass to ignite, and in so doing, is still a rebellion and not a true political party. Perhaps with that critique in mind, the Idaho miltiia movement has moved again in the direction of seeking to enter the political mainstrea,

Sherwood, who last winter threatened to shoot Idaho state legislators if they didn't align themselves with his apocalyptic political views, now wants to raise money to elect them. He's formed the "Liberty of Conscience" political action committee (PAC). It's purpose is to fund the election of legislators sympathetic to the militia cause.

The militia will also use its PAC to fund two ballot initiatives. One would outlaw abortions in Idaho, and the other would allow Sherwood's para-military militia to train with weapons and be legally recognized by the governor. A third initiative designed to amend the state constitution regarding freedom of religion has been ruled illegal under state law by Idaho attorney general Al Lance. For now, it's in limbo. Sherwood would have to obtain over 40,000 signatures to place each initiative on the ballot and then get a majority of Idaho voters to vote yes in order to enact his initiatives into law.

Creating the PAC would allow militia watchers like the Anti- Extremist Coalition to request names and amounts given to candidates by the PAC. State election laws would require the militia organization to submit annual reports to the Idaho Secretary of State's office. These reports would include amounts of money raised, whom the funds came from, and where the funds were used. At one point Sherwood claimed to have more than 5,000 members in 12 states, but he has refused to provide proof to Idaho newspapers on the grounds his members might be harassed. In August of this year Sherwood told the Idaho Statesman his financial support was coming from 30-40 members providing $10 a week.

Even a 100 foot pole isn't long enough

One might think that with Idaho U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth's national notoriety over her support for the militia movement, some local politicians would greet a militia PAC with open arms. However, Sherwood found fewer friends than he'd hoped for after announcing his new political initiatives.

Reaction to the formation of the militia PAC was swift and unanimous. No legislator contacted by either the Idaho Statesman or the Idaho Falls Post Register wanted anything to do with it. Idaho House Speaker Michael Simpson (R-Blackfoot) said, "When someone starts talking about shooting your local legislator I think that creates a credibility problem." What's unique about Simpson's statement is that Sherwood lives in his district. It doesn't reflect well on Sherwood's political smarts to have alienated not only his local legislator, but also the most powerful politician in the Idaho House, and all in one fell swoop.

Rep. Laid Noah (R-Kimberly) is also familiar with the militia. Since Sherwood wore out his welcome in Blackfoot, he's set up shop in Noah's district, which includes Twin Falls. Sherwood's "fashion shoot" for the national news media last August took place there. Noah told the Idaho Falls Post Register, "It would be a desperate candidate that would accept any funds from them."

Rep. Reed Hansen (R-Idaho Falls) told the paper he's willing to meet with any political group, including militias, but he won't take any guff from them. "I'lI have no patience for people who question my patriotism. I won't talk to anyone who comes on like that."

As for Rep. Pete Black (D-Pocatello), he said he had not solicited any support from militia groups and didn't plan to. "I don't, and I won't," was all he would say to the press.

Sherwood charged that legislative hostility to his PAC was not the result of his famous "shoot the legislator" remark, but rather the work of "cloak and dagger methods used by homosexuals and socialist Democrats."

It's unlikely that Sherwood's broad swipe at the anti-extremism coalition will play well with the public. Human rights activists have said previously that it has been "stupifyingly obvious" for some time to most Idaho voters that Sherwood is a loose cannon.

Consider this comment by former Texas Governor Ann Richards on the militia movement in her state. She told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that there has been a decline of values in this country. She said, "There was a time ... when the word 'crackpot' really meant something."

Dan Yurman lives in Eastern Idaho about 40 miles from the Wyoming border.

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