The real economy of Custer and Lemhi counties, Idaho

Lemhi and Custer counties are two large sparsely populated counties in central Idaho. Many of the posts to this blog are about events that happen there.

Politicians often like to argue that the folks there are some kind of “real Idaho” — loggers, miners, grazers. There is hardly anyone more strident in this position than one of the state representatives from Challis, Idaho, Lenore Hardy Barrett (district 35). The area has such a low population that she represents not just Custer and Lemhi counties, but Clark, Jefferson, Butte, and part of Fremont County too.

Louise Wagenknecht lives in Barrett’s district, in the small and remote town of Leadore, pronounced LEAD ORE, like the mineral.

Wagenknecht is an author. She and her husband also raise goats and sheep at Leadore. She just wrote an incredible piece for the Idaho Falls Post Register and for this blog. It may well be she demolishes almost all of the myths spun by Rep. Barrett and her kind . . . Ralph Maughan

The Real Economy

By Louise Wagenknecht

Contrary to Lenore Barrett’s latest “Talkback,” the core, rural industries of Custer County and its neighbor Lemhi County are not (according to U.S. Census figures) farming, ranching, logging, and mining. Farm earnings totaled only $2,926,000 in both counties in 2004. Social Security alone pumps $2,481,000 per MONTH, or $29,772,000 per year, into the local economy. In fact, the top five earners in Lemhi and Custer County are:

Private Non-Farm — $58,296,000

Federal — $31,166,000

Social Security/SSI — $29,772,000

Local government — $23,113,000

State government — $6,747,000

Total earnings for 2004 were $153,575,000 (including farm earnings and $1.5 million from military salaries). But total personal income for the two counties was (in 2000) $250,547,000. That difference of $96,972,000 stems largely from pensions and investments. The largest single contributor to the economy of Custer and Lemhi Counties is in fact unearned income. The core, rural industry in Lemhi and Custer County is the cashing of transfer payments.

While the value of all farm products sold in Custer and Lemhi counties totaled $29,672,000 in 2002, most farmers would go broke without outside income, tax breaks, and federal subsidies. In 2004, only 823 people worked in agriculture in Lemhi and Custer, out of a total workforce of 7166.

Besides transfer payments, the Federal government spends $92,969,000 per year here — $7,102 per capita in Custer and $8,153 per capita in Lemhi. Think that government shouldn’t be redistributing wealth? That ship has sailed.
What about mining? In 2003, only 1,290 Idahoans worked in mines, on a payroll of $56 million. In other words, mining’s entire statewide yearly payroll does not equal the amount paid out in Federal-salaries-plus-Social-Security in Lemhi and Custer Counties alone.

Statewide, stone mining and quarrying employ another 270 with a payroll of almost $14 million. With 250 employees at Thompson Creek Mine and several dozen more at the quarry near Clayton, mining is ­ at the moment ­ locally important in Custer County. But that could change with almost no warning, with an executive decision. And the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness proposal would have affected none of those jobs.

Want to see what untrammeled mineral development will buy you? Visit western Oklahoma, where I once lived. Population in the rural counties has been falling since 1930, and is still falling. Federal ownership of land is almost nonexistent, so the place should be rolling in revenue, right?

Wrong. It’s poor.

The “custom and culture” about which Lenore Barrett brags is only 140 years old, and it’s already pretty much finished. For 10,000 years before that, the custom and culture of the Salmon River country was a sustainable one, based on salmon and bighorn sheep. We destroyed that world. Such, I suppose, were our “values.” Happy New Year.







  1. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    This is on target. I think all of us could write such a column on our own counties.

    Louise makes an important historical point. Before white invasion and settlement, Native cultures and societies were sustainable. Yet, the great argument for dispossing Native peoples of their land–this land–was that they weren’t using land effectively and efficiently, and certainly weren’t making a profit from it. Whites could make better use of it, so the argument of Manifest Destiny wetn.

    And so Americans have destroyed it. And we all are left to pick up the pieces and try to restore things as best we can.

  2. Bob Ostler Avatar
    Bob Ostler

    An interesting story that just confirms what we’ve know for years, the Old West, the West of out imaginations, is on the dole.

  3. Monty Avatar

    Louise W. daylights the reality that “mythology & irrationality” rule our lives. Too many Americans believe in the devine right of kings & queens & history shows that the majority are usually wrong. There are two ways of acquiring knowledge: reasoning & experience & sadly, our culture appears to be short on both.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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