"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.


The InciWeb site (inciweb.nwcg.gov) lists wildfires around the country, and as of late this week it showed 27 of them – or, to be more precise, 27 groups, in Idaho. Depending on how you count the number of Idaho fires probably could be listed well into three digits.

A number of them are listed as being fires in a “complex”, the Lawyer, Clearwater, Motorway, Middle Fork and others being among those. Several national forests, maybe lacking time for listing all the bits and pieces for Inciweb, just list “miscellaneous fires,” of formally zero but almost certainly undetermined acreage.

The biggest of them, the Soda fire in southwest Idaho, was more than 30 miles from Boise but so vast that skillfully shot pictures taken from the Boise foothills showed the fire and the city in one image, as if the city was about to burn. Much of the area burned by the Soda was lightly inhabited desert country, but it did serious damage enough to farm and ranch land and livestock. Fires to the north did cause a series of residential evacuations.

So much fire is going on out there it’s evidently become hard to manage even statistically. Looking down the numbers at a glance, you could see last week wildfires in Idaho covering as much as a half-million acres. And that’s not all that has or will go up in smoke this year.

Is this Idaho’s biggest fire year?

No. Not close.

Only three years ago, 1.75 million acres burned in the state, a level we may not reach this year.

But the biggest was more than a century ago, the great fire of 1910. It was the biggest recorded burn in American history, covering several states and more than three million acres (about three times the size of fires in the comparable region this year), killing at least 86 people, and hitting notably hard in northern Idaho. At least two entire Idaho communities, Falcon and Grand Forks, were wiped from the earth by the blaze. The New York Times writer Timothy Egan devoted an excellent book in 2009 to its causes and after-effects: The Big Burn, Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America.

There were big aftereffects, not least at the U.S. Forest Service, whose lands were especially hard hit. Wikipedia summarizes what Egan and others have pointed out: “The Fire of 1910 cemented and shaped the U.S. Forest Service, which at the time was a newly established department on the verge of cancellation. Before the epic event, there were many debates on how to handle forest fires; whether to let them burn because they were a part of nature and were expensive to fight, or to fight them in order to protect the forests. After the devastation of the Big Blowup, it was decided that the U.S. Forest Service was to prevent and battle against every wildfire.”

Since then, debate has risen and grown about how to deal with wildfires – and if the history of recent years is a decent measure, we’re not on the declining side of them. Should they be fought with prescribed burns, a preferred approach for many professionals? Should forests be thinned through logging? Should some fires just be allowed to burn? Are there other approaches that might forestall more years like this one, or keep a future year from turning into another 1910?

After all, it could get even worse.

And will there be more emphasis in addressing these questions in the coming winter than there usually is after snow begins to fall?

If the snow begins to fall.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus


Of course, someone had to come up with “666.”

But there’s more than this to recent decisions that, at long last, Idaho will move out of its long-standing single area code and into the world of two of them.

The Public Utilities Commission, which oversees area codes, has faced the issue before and managed to kick it down the road. The need has been mentioned as far back as the 80s, but not really confronted head-on until 2001, when the national private company administering area codes figured that Idaho would run out of 208 numbers by the end of 2003. The PUC, putting off that day, cut the numbers assigned to phone companies in single blocks (from 10,000 to 1,000) for the Boise area, which bought some time. It used the same tactic a few years later, on a statewide basis, to buy more time. Now, at last, the game will be up in another three years.

After that, the state could go two ways: Either divide geographically (like it has with congressional districts), which would mean half of the state getting a new area code number. This would allow everyone to still make seven-digit local phone calls. But it would amount to a lot of hassle and changed phone numbers for a lot of people, so the likelihood is an “overlay” – starting a new area code right on top of 208, statewide. That would mean you have to dial an area code even if you’re calling two houses down. But it would also probably mean you can keep your existing phone numbers.

Much of Oregon uses an overlay system that works this way. On one hand, dialing the extra three numbers is a small annoyance. On the other hand, many numbers most of us call these days are programmed into smart phones and the like, so the practical difference is apt to be a lot smaller than in the days when people actually dialed their phone numbers. (Assuming here you’re among the shrinking group who used to use rotary phones? Never mind.) The overlay is a little complicated for callers, but keeping your accustomed number is probably a much bigger tradeoff, especially for businesses and other organizations but for many residents too. A lot of people still do, after all, have local phone tethers, even if they use wireless signals for their local numbers instead of wires (as our house does).

The PUC is taking comments on all this through October 6.

Comes next, of course, the question of what new three-number area code Idaho should get.

It can’t be one already in use elsewhere, which limits the possibilities. The “666” suggestion noted above actually would work, since for some reason no one has gotten it assigned to their local area. But it doesn’t seem very likely for Idaho.

The lively crowd at the Spokane Spokesman-Review’s Huckleberries blog has come up with some additional suggestions too, based on the letters attached to the numbers. You could get GEM (436), which isn’t in use elsewhere. Someone suggested GOP (467), also not in use.

Others suggested that apparently would qualify include LDS (537), LOL (565), or 384 (DUH).

What’s your preference?

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Idaho Idaho column


Nine years ago, the Oregon Supreme Court threw out a 1971 law aiming at limiting advertising along highways that promoted any product not available on the premises. The idea was to allow, for example, a farmer to advertise at roadside his crops for sale, but disallow advertising for a motel or store located far away. The intent of the law was to limit the number of billboards without damaging local businesses.

The court killed the law because, it said, “The state may not enact restrictions that focus on the content of the speech, and this restriction does just that.”

That’s a central thread also running through the U.S. District Court decision last week throwing out the Idaho “ag-gag” law, which seeks to ban video recording of treatment of animals; the new offense was called “interference with agricultural production.” The recorders were compared to “terrorists” and “marauding invaders.” Critics said that the law made the penalty in Idaho higher for exposing evidence of animal abuse than for actually abusing animals.

District Judge B. Lynn Winmill looked at the law more broadly. He started by saying it “seeks to limit and punish those who speak out on topics relating to the agricultural industry, striking at the heart of important First Amendment values.” The law, he suggests, might have barred Upton Sinclair from researching and writing his great novel about the meat-packing industry, The Jungle.

Winmill moved on to this: “A person, such as an employee, would not violate §18-7042 if he or she stood in an agricultural production facility and surreptitiously filmed the agricultural facility owner having a private conversation with his spouse. This same employee, however, could be prosecuted under §18-7042, and face up to a year in jail, and be liable for reputational harm to the owner, if the employee, without the owner’s consent, filmed his fellow workers repeatedly beating, kicking, and jumping on cows, or using a moving tractor to drag a cow on the floor by a chain attached to her neck. In other words, … law enforcement authorities would need to view suspect video or audiotape to determine whether a particular recording violates the statute. The recording prohibition is therefore a classic example of a content-based restriction.”

There is more: “The recording prohibition gives agricultural facility owners veto power, allowing owners to decide what can and cannot be recorded, effectively turning them into state-backed censors able to silence unfavorable speech about their facilities.”

What the “ag-gag” law seeks to do, at base, is stifle a participant’s side of an argument – to say that one side cannot be expressed, but another can. Winmill: “The central problem with § 18-7042 is that it distinguishes between different types of speech, or conduct facilitating speech, based on content. As already discussed in the context of the First Amendment claim, an employee can make an unauthorized recording of an agricultural facility owner’s children visiting the facility without running afoul of § 18-7042, but the same employee could not make an unauthorized recording of workers abusing animals. Likewise, an undercover journalist who misrepresents his identity to secure a job at an agricultural production facility so he can publish a laudatory piece about the facility would not violate the statute. But an undercover journalist who misrepresents his identity to secure a job at the same facility seeking to expose illegal, inhumane, or unsafe behavior would violate the statute. The operative distinction is the message the employee or undercover journalist wishes to convey.”

Where else in human history have we seen governments allowing legal free access for one message, while banning its counterpoint? Legislators might do well to consider that when they return to session to take up this issue again.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus


Is Idaho Donald Trump’s kind of place?

We now have a pretty clear idea of who all the major contenders for president will be in 2016: At this point all or nearly all have announced. (The New York Times declared the field unofficially closed after the announcement last week of Ohio Governor John Kasich.)

So who’s the Republican now most likely to pick up support in the Gem State?

The last couple of nomination contests weren’t good normal case studies, because Mitt Romney had unusually strongly connections to the Idaho area, between his ties to Utah and his Mormon religion, which he has in common with about a third of Idahoans, the bulk of that third being Republican.

Romney aside, the hearts of many Idaho Republicans seem traditionally to go toward insurgent and anti-establishment contenders, and candidates who match up with the Idaho self-image.

The biggest share of those Idaho Republicans who didn’t back Romney in the nomination fight in 2012 went for Ron Paul, whose candidacy was an irritant to much of the establishment. In 2000, there wasn’t really an insurgent candidate. George W. Bush got much of the state’s support and was the big favorite nationally from early on, but there was a significant base for Alan Keyes as well. In 1996, Pat Buchanan was the closest thing around to an insurgent anti-establishing candidate, but he never organized substantially in Idaho, and never picked up a lot of national traction.

When Ronald Reagan, still probably as popular in Idaho as he ever was, got his start, he was an insurgent candidate, running from a long-shot mode in 1968 and as a serious but definitely outsider challenger to a sitting president in 1976. And Reagan won that 1976 Idaho primary hugely, with 74.3% of the vote, his best vote anywhere in the country that year. A lot of the affection for him in Idaho built from that time, from his role not as a front runner or incumbent but as a challenger to powers that be.

Also liked: Challenger to powers that be who are dismissed by them. People like Helen Chenoweth and Sarah Palin picked up a lot of traction in Idaho in no small part for that reason. Their backers might call it being unafraid to speak the truth, their critics might call it speaking foolishness, but in Idaho you’ll find enough voters in the first camp to form a significant base.

Does Donald Trump fit into that mold? Or does someone else do so better?

Reagan had been a governor, but many of the people who like Trump say that much of what they like about him is that he’s an outsider, so presumably someone who hasn’t been a governor or a senator might have some particular appeal. They also like the idea that he “can’t be bought,” that he’s independently wealthy enough that he could do as he chooses. These concepts would have some resonance in the Idaho Republican electorate. Across that very large Republican field of candidates, only three, Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, have not been either a governor or a senator. And Carson and Fiorina are not top-rank contenders, at least at present.

And this time there aren’t any Republican candidates who touch the self-identity chords in Idaho the way Reagan, George W. Bush or Mitt Romney did.

Might Idaho be Trump territory? Could be, if The Donald lasts in his campaigning hothouse long enough to get to next year’s Idaho primary.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus


Being neither a medical nor a legal professional, I’m wary of stepping too far into this intersection of the two arenas. But there’s a large public policy question here worth your, as well as my, consideration.

On July 7 the Idaho Supreme Court decided Sohar Chavez v. Kevin Stokes, a worker compensation case. Chavez worked as an irrigator for Stokes on a farm near Payette; one day in September 2012 his pinky finger was caught and mangled in a piece of machinery. Stokes wasn’t insured for workers compensation but paid without dispute Chavez’ various medical expenses – except one.

After the accident happened, Chavez drove himself to the home of a Payette area law officer, where paramedics tried to treat him. Someone – apparently a paramedic – made the decision to call for the Life Flight helicopter, which flew him to the St. Alphonsus hospital in Boise. A few days later Life Flight issued a bill for $21,201. Stokes paid all the other expenses, but argued that the Life Flight, or at least its cost, was not necessary or reasonable.

The dispute over this has lasted a long time. About a year after the accident a referee was called in, and sought an independent doctor’s opinion. The doctor said the injury to the finger (which was serious enough that it was amputated at St. Alphonsus) was serious but it “was not in any way, shape or form, life critical. For that reason I do not understand why Life Flight was called or addressed in the first place, and why the case was not taken to Holy Rosary. Indeed, it is extremely reasonable that the patient would be taken physically to Holy Rosary Hospital. Had there been an incident which may in some way benefited from a vascular reconstruction, then the patient could be transferred to St. Alphonsus or St. Luke’s. Indeed, this was in no way necessary.”

The Holy Rosary Medical Center at Ontario is a substantial general-purpose hospital located about four to five miles from Payette, and could have been reached in a few minutes. St. Alphonsus in Boise was about an hour away by car, less by helicopter but still a longer trip even by air than to Holy Rosary. The referee concluded that the medical work could have been done properly at Ontario.

There are specific rules and guidelines in Idaho (as elsewhere) covering when a medical procedure is “reasonable,” and in this case the court applied some of those rules and partly reversed an earlier ruling. Overall, the unanimous court said, “We recognize that the Life Flight transport may be seen as arguably unnecessary with the benefit of hindsight, but the evidence nonetheless supports the Commission’s finding that the Life Flight transport was reasonable medical treatment at the time of Chavez’s injury.”

So, the conclusion was that the $21,201 less-than-an-hour helicopter flight was deemed a legitimate medical expense, and had to be paid by Stokes.

As the court’s language suggests, hindsight is easier than real-time emergency action.

Could the same result have been obtained for $21,201 less? It would seem so.

The answers aren’t completely settled and obvious in this area. The question of what was the right thing to do in this case was answered in different ways by various professionals. But the case of Chavez v. Stokes shines a light on why getting a handle on our medical expenses has been so hard, and on some of the discussions we’re going to have to have if we ever hope to bring them under some rational control.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus


This summer in Idaho is featuring some unfortunate health headlines ranging from the plague among rodents to e. coli on the beach (at Lucky Peak park near Boise).

But the really messy story is neither of these: It concerns the Saltzer Medical Group and its relationship with St. Luke’s hospitals, and the slippery state of how modern medicine deals with big money.

The story goes back a few years and iterations. Saltzer is a consortium of physicians at Nampa – the state’s second-largest city, remember – which had a large base of customers who regularly needed hospital facilities. St. Luke’s Health System, the largest hospital organization in Idaho and based at Boise – with major facilities scattered around the metro area – bought Saltzer in 2012, in a friendly takeover. Part of the justification was that if the organizations worked more tightly together, they might be able to hold down costs.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden warned that the deal might be illegal, violating federal anti-competitiveness laws. St. Luke’s and Saltzer said the merger could be readily “unwound” if need be. That’s now being put to the test. Two levels of federal courts ordered the merger reversed, agreeing with the state (and several St. Luke’s competitors) that the mashup was anti-competitive. Now, in speaking of the un-wind, St. Luke’s attorneys were quoted as saying that what “seemed like a simple, straightforward process … has proven not to be so.”

Is everyone properly shocked . . . ?

For one thing, Saltzer isn’t now what it was: A group of what was 50 or so doctors is down in number by about a quarter, some of those departing evidently wary of getting snared in legal issues. Several specialties important to the overall group now have no practitioners. The group reached an agreement with St. Luke’s to provide those services, which has made things even more complex.

And there have been efforts afoot to sell off part or all of Saltzer to some other party.

How does all of that comport with the court’s order to, more or less, return St. Luke’s and Saltzer to where they were before their merger?

No one really knows.

There’s some talk about a court-appointed master who would have some direct authority over the situation. This might work, in theory, somewhat comparably to a trustee in a bankruptcy case. But this may be a lot more difficult for such an official to handle than would be a bankrupcty; in this case, the businesses are alive and fully functioning. Part of what has happened involved physicians quitting one employer and moving to another, or setting up independent shop. How could a master force someone to, say, continue working at Saltzer if they didn’t want to? (Not that such an effort would likely be made anyway.) Both Saltzer and St. Luke’s are active – in St. Luke’s case, you might almost say hyperactive – businesses, doing many things and making many decisions every day. Planting a special master in the middle of that could be nightmarish for everyone involved, prospectively including patients.

The legal-financial complex U.S. medicine is in may be headed for a series of smashups. Look at St Luke’s and Saltzer as a harbinger of things to come.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus