What It Means To Be ‘Fiercely Independent’ In Idaho, A State Surrounded By Government

May 15, 2014

Castle Peak, Baker Ranch
The Baker family's three ranches are in the East Fork valley. That's the snow-capped top of Castle Peak in the background.
Credit Emilie Ritter Saunders / Boise State Public Radio

If Hollywood needed a setting for one of its westerns, this spot along the East Fork of the Salmon River just might be it. In fact, one of Clint Eastwood’s famous westerns, Pale Rider, was shot not too far from here.

For the dwindling number of ranchers who still earn their livings on this land, this valley is nothing like a romanticized western – it’s gritty, year-round work.

The Baker family has lived, and ranched here for more than 125 years.

“This is the house right here," Sarah Baker says as she pulls off the narrow road and points the small, weathered cabin her grandfather was born in 92 years ago. It was built around 1916 and isn't far from where Sarah's great-great grandparents settled when they moved west from Georgia in 1888.

Eddie Baker (left) with his younger brother Dick Baker (right) standing in front of the house they were born in. Dick and his wife Betty live down the road from here. The photo on the right shows that old, weathered house today.
Eddie Baker (left) with his younger brother Dick Baker (right) standing in front of the house they were born in. Dick and his wife Betty live down the road from here. The photo on the right shows that old, weathered house today.
Credit Courtesy Baker Family (left) | Emilie Ritter Saunders (right) / Boise State Public Radio

There’s a notion that Idaho, like much of the West, is made up of fiercely independent people. It’s a rural place, well known for the hardworking can-do attitude that allows ranchers like the Bakers to ranch, and induces city folks to handle the problem on their own when, say, a pipe freezes in winter. But are Idahoans truly independent, or is it a desire to be self-reliant?

When you're standing at the Baker's string of three family ranches 30 miles southwest of Challis, it's easy to understand that self-reliance.  They live in a remote place. Winters are tough here. It’s surrounded by steep sagebrush-covered hills and dense forests.

One of the redeeming qualities of this remote place is the view from the pasture.

“You can see Castle Peak is just off to the left, that’s one of the higher peaks in Idaho," says Sarah. "A lot of people recreate to, the Boulder White Cloud Mountains, that’s what you see here from the house. [It's a] Pretty nice little spot."

Sarah is the sixth generation of Bakers to live here. She commutes to her ag extension office job in Challis every day. Many of the Bakers still live at the three ranches nestled in the East Fork Valley. The Baker family has made their living mostly by raising cattle; they hunt, butcher and grow a lot of their own food. They didn’t have electricity until 1953.

This life might be what many people picture when we think of western independence. But as we sit around the Baker’s kitchen table, there’s a keen sense that even though these ranches are more than 150 miles from the nearest big-box-store, they aren’t entirely autonomous.

Sarah, her grandfather Dick and father Doug all live on their family's land in the East Fork valley.
Sarah, her grandfather Dick and father Doug all live on their family's land in the East Fork valley.
Credit Emilie Ritter Saunders / Boise State Public Radio

The Baker grandparents are on Medicare. Two have worked for the government. Their ranches are surrounded by land managed by the federal government.

“Basically, we need the federal grazing to keep the ranch viable. And when it’s gone, the ranch is gone,” says Doug Baker, Sarah's dad. 

Doug bought his piece of land in the early 1990s when he was still working for the U.S. Forest Service. During his 30-year-career, Doug helped his dad ranch in his spare time. By the time he retired, Doug felt like bureaucracy had choked his ability to get things done in the office and on his ranch.

“I’m not against laws – but it’s just, everything is so extreme," he says. "It’s hard to work and be independent anymore.” 

The Baker’s pay to graze their cattle on BLM land, the Salmon-Challis National Forest, and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. This kind of push-and-pull with the federal government is common among western states, especially here in Idaho.

Some politicians have famously rejected policy crafted outside of these borders. When Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter was Idaho’s Congressman, he was one of only three Republicans to vote against the Patriot Act in 2001. In 1990, when then Governor Cecil Andrus vetoed an out-of-state bill that would restrict abortions in Idaho, he famously said "We Idahoans are a fiercely independent group."

“I certainly think that if you’re running for office it’s a requirement to say you’re fiercely independent,” says Idaho political scientist David Adler. 

He says when it comes to political independence, Idaho’s politicians lean on the idea so it seems they’re standing above the fray.

“That they can’t be bought, that they can’t be influenced, they speak with an independent voice. But of course that too is a myth," says Adler. "Every politician is beholden to interests.” 

Even if it’s not entirely realistic, Adler says that rhetoric resonates with Idahoans because many people came here – and still do – seeking to be free from strict regulations.

Adler says that claim of independence has a lot to do with geography. As homesteaders left crowded cities in the East for the wide-open, western frontier, they had a romanticized idea of starting anew. 

That romantic view of the west is based more on literature and later Hollywood westerns and pop-culture than in documented history, says University of Montana historian and author Dan Flores.

“This is one of the burdens of western history, is that it is one of the most mythologized and romanticized parts of American history,” says Flores.

He points out that the development and settling of the West – from the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 to the feds giving away plots of land to families willing to move here --  has been completely underwritten by the federal government.

That federal involvement very much continues today.

“So anyone who thinks that they’re going to come to the interior west and escape the federal government is operating under an enormous delusion about western history and how the West works,” says Flores.

Dick Baker with his two sons Doug and Wayne, taken in February, 1977.
Dick Baker with his two sons Doug and Wayne, taken in February, 1977.
Credit Courtesy Baker Family

Back at the Baker ranch, Doug says he and his family often ask each other why they’re still in the cattle business.

Ranchers, like the Bakers, don’t take vacations, or get days off. Cattle need to be fed. Equipment breaks. Hay needs swathing.

It’s no wonder westerners have this idea of themselves as independent, at a personal level it’s often earned and true, even if looking at the bigger picture, it’s more complicated.

“It’d just be easier to sell to a land developer, it’d be a hell of a lot more money," Doug says with a smile. "And go keep us an acre and build us a new house, and forget the hard work. [In] Some ways, it’s born and bred in us, in our DNA, to want to work the land, and we want to keep the valley the way it is.”

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