"I think there's no question that this wilderness designation would be an economic benefit. But, it will not be the answer."
— RICK JOHNSON, Executive director, Idaho Conservation League
"We're in no way advocating that that wilderness is going to be a save-all for Custer County."
— LINDSAY SLATER, Chief of staff for Rep. Mike Simpson
"The economic health of Blaine County depends on wilderness and roadless areas that provide for high-quality recreation opportunities."
— SARAH MICHAEL, Blaine County commissioner
"I'm totally against it. Totally against it. It's just more government."
— ROB DUNHAM, Challis
Written on August 6, 2003
Central Idaho, including the region that encompasses the vast Boulder and White Cloud mountains, is a land of contrasts. Flat pastures dotted with sagebrush give way to towering peaks. During the abbreviated summers, a dry heat parches the landscape, before succumbing to an extreme cold that asserts its grip each winter.
But for many central Idahoans, the most noticeable disparity in the region is between the economies of the two counties that comprise the heart of the state's mountainous middle.
Blaine County is an established bastion of wealth, fueled in large part by tourism and second homeowners attracted by recreational amenities. Meanwhile, its neighbor to the north, Custer County, has routinely seen a departure of people and jobs, as traditional industries that extract resources from the abundant public lands have experienced a sharp downturn.
Legislation being drafted by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, to designate 250,000 acres of wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds and concurrently boost the Custer County economy with a unique economic development package, proposes in part to lessen the financial disparity in central Idaho.
Lindsay Slater, Simpson's chief of staff, said economic considerations have been critical in the development of the draft legislation. "We have to ensure we protect those who are affected directly," Slater said. "Packers, guides, ranchers, sportsmen... We need to work to ensure that they are as well off or better off than they are today. Everybody needs to win in this process."
Wilderness designations inherently carry economic impacts, with arguments being made for and against protected lands based on financial considerations.
Many conservatives claim that wilderness areas give back to rural populations less than they take, creating only a limited demand for basic services at the expense of traditional enterprises, cultures, and recreational activities.
At the same time, some economists and environmentalists have said that designating a large portion of the Boulder-White Clouds as protected wilderness could in itself provide substantial economic benefits to the economies of both Blaine and Custer Counties.
"I think wilderness designation would be good for the identity of the area, and the economy of the area," said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, which has strongly lobbied Simpson to advance the wilderness legislation.
Simpson's economic plan
In an attempt to diversify the beleaguered economy of Custer County, Simpson plans to attach to his wilderness proposal a still-evolving plan to raise up to $10 million for economic development in Challis—the county seat—and its outlying areas.
The bill—to be called the "Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act"—currently includes plans to convey to Custer County 16,000 acres of federal land somewhere near the White Cloud Mountains. The scattered parcels of land would be sold to private landholders to generate revenue for economic programs, while also increasing the tax base of the cash-strapped county.
Slater said approximately $4 million of the proceeds would be used to finance development of a modern educational facility called the "Central Idaho Educational Center," while an equal amount would be retained by county officials to promote economic development.
"All we would hope is that the county would use that money to enhance what would be done at the Central Idaho Education Center," Slater said.
In addition, an estimated $1 million in land-sales proceeds would be reserved for recreational enhancements in Custer County, including improvements to public campgrounds and multi-use trails. The work would likely be administered by the state, Slater said.
The educational center, planned for location in Challis, would be operated by a consortium of educational organizations, including Boise State University, College of Southern Idaho and University of Idaho. The facility would be charged with training students for a variety of professions, such as medical services and emergency response, Slater noted.
In theory, the center would provide Custer County with a tool to develop a skilled work force, which in turn would attract businesses and individual entrepreneurs seeking to locate in an affordable mountain community.
"All we're trying to do is give Challis an edge up," Slater said, noting that the plan is "in no way" intended to be "an economic bailout for Custer County."
Does Custer need help?
Many groups with an interest in Simpson's proposed legislation agree that Custer County needs economic stimulation, although some environmental organizations outright oppose the concept of selling public land to fund new programs.
"We believe direct appropriations are a far more effective way to achieve economic enhancement goals," Johnson and ICL directors said in a July 22 letter to Simpson.
Indeed, Custer County in recent years has been in the midst of an economic depression. Unemployment in the county hovered just under 8 percent in 2001, Idaho Department of Commerce statistics indicate. Average yearly earnings per job in 2000 were $24,287, compared to a statewide average of $28,103. In addition, an estimated 38 percent of the county's income is derived from non-labor sources, such as stock dividends, interest payments and retirement payments.
"Custer County is in such dire straits," said Paul May, owner of the May Family Ranch reunion center and bed-and-breakfast inn, near Clayton. "We've lost the superintendent of schools, the principal of the high school, and the principal of the grade school. People are just moving out."
In fact, the population of Challis from 1990 to 2002 declined sharply, from 1,073 to a mere 873. The population of Custer County increased only slightly during the same period, from 4,133 to 4,292. The city of Mackay, on the southeast side of the proposed wilderness, also decreased in population from 1990 to 2002.
Custer County's population peaked in the 1980s at approximately 5,500, during the boom years of the mining industry, which reached a countywide high in 1984 with approximately 600 employees. By 2000, a mere 206 county residents were employed in the mining industry.
Sharon May, co-owner of the May Family Ranch, said she is concerned about the continued loss of jobs in longtime staple industries that use public lands. "It sounds wonderful to set wilderness aside, if you can control it," she said. "Logging has been stopped. Mines are being closed. The cattle are being driven out. Ranchers' incomes have really dropped."
However, one body of evidence suggests that economies across the rural West are being forced to diversify to pull out of the historical boom-and-bust cycles of extractive industries.
In a widely publicized report issued in April, the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit organization with offices in Arizona, Montana and Canada, provides data that suggest rural economies that have diversified and have provided certain public amenities, such as Blaine County's, tend to be most successful.
Ben Alexander, associate director of socio-economics for the Sonoran Institute and co-author of the report, called "Working Around the White Clouds," said he believes the economic incentives in Simpson's plan could make a difference in Custer County. "What I think Mike Simpson is trying to do is on track," he said.
In the 52-page report, Alexander states that the demographic and economic conditions in the rural West are changing rapidly, requiring communities to focus more on services and so-called "knowledge-based" industries to stay competitive. "At the very least, citizens need to realize that competing as a low-cost producer of food, fiber and minerals is no longer a competitive advantage," the report states. "The game has changed and the communities of central Idaho must adapt to these changes in order to succeed economically."
The report notes that "decades of heavy dependence on mining have left (Custer) County impoverished." The good news, it says, is that the region is well positioned to establish itself as a retirement and tourism destination.
"Before, the concept was jobs first, then migration," Alexander said. "Now, people decide where they want to live. The whole economic paradigm has shifted to migration first, then jobs."
Keys to economic success
Specific community offerings, such as an educated workforce, locally based education facilities, a regional airport, high-speed Internet access and public lands in protected status, can all play a role in attracting new residents and businesses, Alexander said.
Blaine County—with approximately 20,000 residents—in 2001 posted average earnings per job of $30,709, well above the state average. Part of the equation, Alexander said, is the social, cultural and environmental amenities the county offers, which attract residents, tourists and retirees.
But, with more than 94 percent of the land in Custer County controlled by federal and state agencies, some of its residents claim that less, not more, government control is needed to boost the economy.
State Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said that calling Simpson's draft legislation an economic-incentive bill does not automatically make it such. "I can call myself Elizabeth Taylor, but that's not going to make me beautiful," she said. "We're losing our resource industries because of environmental regulation."
Barrett said she believes that one of Custer County's primary economic shortfalls is insufficient federal "Payments in Lieu of Taxes" subsidies—funds provided to counties with nontaxable federal lands in their boundaries. Allocations are based on each county's population, amount of federal land in its borders and payments for uses of the land. For the fiscal year 2003, Custer County is slated to receive $381,000 in PILT funds, compared to $963,000 for Blaine County.
Benefits of wilderness
Countering claims that federal control over and protection of lands necessarily hurts rural economies, the Sonoran Institute's 2003 "Working Around the White Clouds" report said there is abundant evidence of "a strong relationship between economic growth and the amount of land in protected status."
Alexander said a wilderness designation for the Boulder-White Clouds would make central Idaho a more easily recognized destination and enhance the opportunities for regional communities to promote and develop their economic base with nonconsumptive uses of the land—such as outdoor recreation.
"Tourism is often the first step in an economic transition," he said. "People come to a place first as tourists, and then may relocate their family or business."
Stanley, considered the gateway to the Sawtooth Wilderness and immediately west of the White Clouds, has reaped the benefits of a boom in the nation's $18 billion per year human-powered outdoor-recreation industry. The largest employer in the city, the Stanharrah Corporation, operates a variety of tourism-related businesses.
Numerous studies also have indicated that the draw of protected lands and recreation has provided a significant economic boost to economies nationwide.
A study released in May by the Outdoor Industry Foundation's Business for Wilderness program found that counties that contain the country's largest national parks experienced income growth twice the national average.
A 2001 study by Oregon-based economic consultants Dean Runyon Associates—composed for the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber and Visitors Bureau—states that the impacts of tourist spending in 2000 in Blaine County sustained 5,980 jobs and provided $120 million in income.
Blaine County support
Blaine County commissioners last December unanimously supported a wilderness designation in the Boulder-White Clouds. "The economic health of Blaine County depends on wilderness and roadless areas that provide for high-quality recreation opportunities," Commissioner Sarah Michael said.
Cathy Becker, mayor of Challis, said she believes establishment of a new wilderness area near the city would not have a profound effect on the local economy. She said it could discourage elderly travelers and families with children from visiting Challis because access to surrounding lands would be restricted. However, she noted that if the national economy improves, significant numbers of out-of-state travelers—many of whom have significant travel budgets—could be inclined to visit a new wilderness area in the Boulder-White Clouds.
Lance Moss, president of the Challis Area Chamber of Commerce, said many Challis business owners hope to establish a more tourism-based economy, but do not necessarily want more designated wilderness. "It could be good or bad, depending on your business," he said.
Moss said a wilderness designation for the White Clouds could have a negative impact on local businesses catering to large numbers of tourists who visit the region to ride motorized vehicles. At the same time, outfitters that offer horse-packing and fishing trips might grow, he said.
"The mentality that I run across is that (the wilderness designation) is pretty much inevitable, so people hope we can get something out of it," Moss said.
Paul May, who said his lodging business alone will bring 1,500 people to Custer County this year, said he supports Simpson's proposal in concept, but wants more details. "We need to make this area a destination, not just a drive-through."