Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Is it time for a Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness?

Rep. Simpson tries to appease groups with wilderness, economic stimulus bill

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By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

A bird?s eye view of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains reveals a landscape, twisted and crinkled, like a flattened piece of wastepaper. Hikers, bikers, motorcyclists, campers, off-road vehicle drivers, miners and nearby residents have all laid stake to this land. For proposed wilderness designation to become reality, the groups must look for common ground. Photo by Willy Cook

Written on July 30, 2003

Idaho's wilderness areas

Idaho is home to six wilderness areas, encompassing 4 million acres.

· Selway-Bitterroot (1.09 million acres)

· Sawtooth (217,000) acres

· Gospel Hump (206,000 acres)

· Frank Church-River of No Return (2.4 million acres)

· Craters of the Moon (43,000 acres)

· Hells Canyon (84,000 acres)

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"In some areas everybody is going to have to swallow...(although)... I have never met anyone who doesn't agree that we ought to protect the pristine areas of this state."

— REP. MIKE SIMPSON, R-Idaho

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"In fairness to Congressman Simpson, maybe he's got such a compelling case for what he's going to do that maybe I'm going to turn tail. I want a little more ingenuous information before I jump on this bandwagon. But I don't want more wilderness, and that is basically where this is headed."

— LENORE BARRETT, Idaho state representative

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"It's very mysterious and nebulous. How can you comment when you don't know what's going on."

— STEW CHRUCHWELL, East Fork of Salmon ranch for Western Watersheds Project

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By "Because Challis is basically competing with 200 other communities like it in the West for economic development, we want to offer an opportunity for people to gain higher education, those kinds of things that would be very attractive to a business."

"Frankly, there needs to be a broad consensus for this, because there are any number of ways it can be killed. If we don't have a bill that has broad support, we won't take it to Congress."

— LINDSAY SLATER, Rep. Mike Simpson's chief of staff

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"For humans, wilderness areas are places of solace, but from a wildlife perspective, species don't have the confrontation of mechanized human uses that impact them."

— KAZ THEA, NREPA Network regional coordinator

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"I'd like to see it left the way it is. I've seen so much stuff change here, and I'd like to see it stay the same."

— John Downing, 14-year-old Stanley resident who enjoys motorcycles and backcountry outings with his father

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Written on July 30, 2003

By GREG STAHL,Express Staff Writer

At 11,815 feet above sea level, Castle Peak in Idaho's remote and rugged White Cloud Mountains towers over more than 500,000 acres of contiguous road-free wildlands that bridge two vastly different cultures.

This wild country, connecting the wealthy resort kingdom of Sun Valley with the rural and agrarian communities of Custer County, is a battle ground that has hosted land-use skirmishes for more than 30 years.

In the 1970s, the people of Idaho staved off a massive molybdenum mine planned for the lower flanks of Castle Peak, drawing the White Clouds into the political limelight for the first time and helping to effect congressional designation of the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

Now, 30 years later, with the region's land-use conundrums still partially unresolved, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, is attempting to strike a chord of compromise among the Boulder and White Cloud Mountains' diverse and numerous stakeholders.

Simpson's pledge and the art of compromise

In 1999, near the shores of Redfish Lake, just 15 miles northwest of Castle Peak, Simpson stood before a burgeoning crowd of environmentalists and announced that he would try to craft a wilderness bill for the Boulder and White Cloud mountains. Four years later, Simpson's chief of staff, Lindsay Slater said the congressman is nearly ready to release a plan for public review, perhaps in September.

Simpson's proposal, an apparent study in the art of compromise, would designate about 250,000 acres of the White Cloud and Boulder Mountains as wilderness. The hybrid wilderness bill, to be called the "Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act," would also trade roughly 16,000 acres of public land to Custer County that it would sell to private interests, netting the county up to $10 million.

Half of the proceeds would be used to fund a new "Central Idaho Education Center," and half would be retained by the county for economic development with very few strings attached.

"Because Challis is basically competing with 200 other communities like it in the West for economic development, we want to offer an opportunity for people to gain higher education, those kinds of things that would be very attractive to a business," Slater said.

Concepts disclosed so far also include potential grazing permit buyouts and ranch purchases that would allow ranchers in environmentally sensitive areas to relocate.

As part of the compromise, and because motorized and mechanized uses are not allowed in wilderness areas, proposed wilderness area boundaries would not encompass areas of traditional snowmobile, motorcycle and off-road vehicle use. In general, the wilderness would include areas east of the spine of the White Cloud Mountains and some, but not all, of the Boulder Mountains.

A significant portion of the wilderness area would include relatively low-elevation land in the eastern portions of the mountains to the east of the East Fork of the Salmon River and north of the North Fork of the Big Lost River. It would stretch east to Jerry Peak

Areas specifically omitted from the proposal include the Boulder Basin near Boulder Peak; Champion, Washington and Fourth of July lakes basins; Warm Springs Meadow and parts of Warm Springs Creek; Rough and Casino creeks; and Railroad Ridge, Slater said. Some of these areas are equally prized by environmentalists, mountain bikers, off-road vehicle riders and snowmobilers.

Slater quickly acknowledged that in this art of compromise, no one group will get everything it wants.

"The Idaho Conservation League wants more than 500,000 acres. We're at half of that, and the congressman is looking at boundaries that are similar to what the Forest Service recommended, with adjustments to protect traditional motorized and snowmobile use," Slater said.

Some groups—like the ICL, which has been brokering the deal on behalf of environmentalists, and the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which has been working on behalf of motorized and bicycling interests—have acknowledged that compromise is part of the game. Nevertheless, nervous apprehension appears to be gnawing at key players on various sides of the issue as they await the release of Simpson's official blueprint.

"In fairness to Congressman Simpson, maybe he's got such a compelling case for what he's going to do that maybe I'm going to turn tail," said State Rep. Lenore Barrett, a conservative Republican from Challis and a wilderness opponent. "I want a little more ingenuous information before I jump on this bandwagon. But I don't want more wilderness, and that is basically where this is headed."

Stew Churchwell, a Boulder and White Cloud wilderness supporter, has lived in Custer County for 20 years and manages a Custer County ranch on the East Fork of Salmon River for Western Watersheds Project, a Hailey-based environmental group. He also is anxious to learn more details about Simpson's plan, but, unlike Barrett, he fears not enough of the mountain ranges will be included in the final document.

"It's very mysterious and nebulous," he said. "How can you comment when you don't know what's going on."

But support from people like Barrett and Churchwell is what the congressman needs, Slater said.

"Frankly, there needs to be a broad consensus for this, because there are any number of ways it can be killed.

"If we don't have a bill that has broad support, we won't take it to Congress."

The past and the present

In 1968, the American Smelting and Refining Co. announced plans to mine and process molybdenum at the base of Castle Peak, prompting a backlash from the state's budding environmental community and from the people of Idaho, who elected Gov. Cecil Andrus, in part, because of his pledges to protect the area.

Andrus, who opposed the ASARCO mine, became Idaho's first Democratic governor in 25 years by defeating incumbent Don Samuelson, a mine supporter. Over the next two years, the debate continued on how to protect the White Cloud and nearby Sawtooth Mountains.

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area was established in 1972, along with the Sawtooth Wilderness Area, which encompasses 217,000 acres of staggering granite cirques, peaks and timbered moraines. In establishing the SNRA and Sawtooth Wilderness, Congress also instructed the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to establish a wilderness study area in the Boulder and White Cloud Mountains. The request resulted in a 251,100-acre safeguard, which is the only congressionally mandated wilderness study area in Idaho.

To this day, the 582,931-acres of road-free wild lands including and surrounding the congressionally mandated wilderness study area are the largest conterminous road-free area in the lower 48 states.

Since the SNRA was established, there have been at least three attempts by conservationists and politicians to introduce legislation establishing a Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness Area. None succeeded.

For some, the current effort represents a window of opportunity that may not return for at least a generation.

"Opportunities like this don't come around all that often," said Geoff Pampush, executive director of The Nature Conservancy-Idaho.

TNC-Idaho is working with Custer County ranchers and politicians to help effect the economic stimulus portion of the deal. However, it has not taken a position on wilderness designation.

"If the moment passes, it is passed for a long time. If it passes, both (Custer) county loses and the wilderness advocates lose," Pampush said.

At the crux of the wilderness debate are the numerous stakeholders who must find common ground for legislation to become reality.

Throughout the last 30 years, recreational use in the Boulder-White Clouds by outdoors enthusiasts has steadily increased, and the skyrocketing popularity of off-road vehicles, mountain bikes and snowmobiles has hit home in the two mountain ranges. But, while use has increased, wild populations of certain plants and animals have been on the decline.

Although wilderness debates often center around human use and access issues, it is well documented that wildlife and wild plants are key beneficiaries of wilderness designations.

"For humans, wilderness areas are places of solace. But from a wildlife perspective, species don't have the confrontation of mechanized human uses that impact them," said Kaz Thea, of Hailey. A former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, she is an advocate for the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, a federal bill that would designate wilderness in road-free areas throughout the Northern Rockies.

"The importance is locking up large tracts of land, and that's the beauty of wilderness, because you're reducing intensive human uses like off-highway vehicle use," Thea said. "Large blocks of unfragmented habitat with low human intervention are one of the key aspects of wilderness areas."

In the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, a number of species share the land with people, including mountain goats, bighorn sheep, salmon, gray wolves and Canada lynx. Several species are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and several more—including a rare plant called White Clouds milkvetch, which is found only in the White Cloud Mountains—are considered sensitive species.

For Churchwell, it's a land of inspiring beauty as well as an important piece of Idaho's habitat puzzle.

"The first backpacking trip I did in this country was in the White Clouds, and I really loved it," he said. "The thing that draws me, personally, to the White Clouds is the incredible beauty. The color of those vertical headwalls you really don't find in other mountains like the Sawtooths or the Bighorn Crags. It's so beautiful and so photogenic."

But Idaho is growing, and as the demand for forest use rises, wildlife, fish, forests and motorized and mechanized access to them are all at risk.

"Our position is that we feel we should be able to preserve the current recreation access that our constituents have in the Boulder-White Clouds area," said Clark Collins, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an organization that represents a broad spectrum of backcountry recreation interests including horseback riders, mountain bikers, off-highway vehicle users and snowmobilers.

"In the past, all the wilderness proposals have only included lands proposed for wilderness, and everyone else be damned," Collins said. "Simpson has made it clear that our interests will get something out of this, and that is designation of land for our use."

An ongoing process

The balance between the conflicting interests involved in the wilderness discussion, as well as the proposed economic stimulus package for Custer County, could be precarious. Environmentalists are calling for more protection, while access groups are asking for assurances that their members will not be cut out of a myriad of historical use areas.

What's more, the concept of giving 16,000 acres of public land to Custer County for economic stimulus has created quite a stir among grassroots environmentalists.

And this debate aside, Idaho still has more wild land than any state outside Alaska, with 4 million acres of designated wilderness and another 17 million acres of Forest Service and BLM land still bereft of roads and available for potential wilderness protection.

For now, the various interest groups are assuming a wait-and-see posture.

"Our process is going slow and methodical, keeping people informed when we can, and then going public with the concepts to find out what's going to work and what's not going to work," Slater said. "Then we're trying to find out where the wins are for each affected group."




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