A joint meeting between the Blaine and Custer county commissioners on Wednesday did not appear to change any minds about a proposed Boulder-White Clouds National Monument, but did result in an agreement to invite federal officials to the area to answer questions.
The Custer commissioners also announced a date of Thursday, May 29, for a second joint meeting, at 6 p.m. at the Challis Events Center.
The meeting at Carol’s Dollar Mountain Lodge in Sun Valley was prompted by Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen with the intent of allowing both boards to listen to opposing views and explore potential common interests. The Blaine County commissioners have passed a resolution supporting a monument and the Custer County commissioners have passed a resolution opposing it.
National monument designation would occur through a proclamation signed by President Barrack Obama under the Antiquities Act. About 91 percent of the proposed 592,000-acre monument in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains would be in Custer County.
A dozen Custer County residents were in the audience of about 80 people. Seventeen people from both counties voiced their opinions during a public comment period; all but four expressed opposition to or at least skepticism toward designation of a national monument.
The Custer County commissioners especially questioned proponents’ claims that a monument would provide an economic boost to their county.
“When these wilderness things come in, it hasn’t really helped us,” Commissioner Lin Hintze said.
He also said national monument designation would prohibit mining, which is an important component of Custer County’s economy. The Thompson Creek molybdenum mine northwest of Clayton is the county’s largest employer, currently employing about 200 people.
As proposed, a national monument would significantly expand the acreage protected by the Sawtooth National Recreation Area by including the East Fork of the Salmon River basin, much of which is grazed by cattle. The Idaho Conservation League has said it would support continued cattle grazing there, but a grazing management plan would not be finalized until after a monument is proclaimed.
“In Custer County, we really depend on the ranching,” Commissioner Doyle Lamb said. “Mackay is dying and Arco, which is right next to a national monument, has been dying for years, so I really don’t see the economic benefit.”
Though his organization has taken no stand on the issue, Sun Valley Economic Development Executive Director Harry Griffith said increased tourism from monument designation would proportionally benefit Custer County’s economy more than it would Blaine’s. He said studies of similar designations indicate an economic boost of between $100,000 and $1 million annually to the county.
However, Doyle said an increase in tourism would put a strain on Custer County’s small emergency services agencies.
“We don’t have the tax base that you guys have, and our EMS system really suffers when we get the tourists,” he said.
Ketchum resident David Sundholm questioned whether the studies that have shown economic benefits from national monument or wilderness designations have been of areas that already have a lot of protected land nearby, as Custer County does.
Campbell Gardett, a resident of the tiny town of Chilly in the Lost River Valley, cautioned that monument designation could reduce control by local residents.
“I don’t think there’s an understanding of the forces that will be unleashed,” he said. “I think the effect on Custer County would be to wipe out a slower way of life than there is in Blaine County.”
Sawtooth Society Executive Director Gary O’Malley said another level of management should be added only if a “clear and compelling case” could be made that it would provide better protection.
“In spite of working closely with the advocates over the past few years, we believe that no such case can be made,” he said.
In mid-April, the Sawtooth Society sent a letter to Obama opposing monument designation.
Robert Boren, who lives between Salmon and Challis, questioned proponents’ claims that a national monument would benefit wildlife, including anadromous fish.
“What’s wrong with what’s being done now, and how would we do that differently?” he asked.
He urged both boards of commissioners to seek answers to why and how the monument would be created before reaching any conclusions about supporting or opposing it.
Hailey resident Bob Rosso urged the Custer County commissioners to consider whether some version of a national monument might provide benefits to their county, including help with emergency services funding.
Rosso said that during a visit to Washington, D.C., about the issue, he was informed by Department of Interior officials that “if we don’t all come together, if we don’t speak as one, this won’t happen.”
Commissioner Schoen suggested that before proceeding much further, both counties should get answers to the questions raised by officials and the public. The Custer County commissioners agreed to sign a letter inviting federal officials to Idaho.
However, Custer County Commissioner Wayne Butts said federal bureaucrats are not likely to be able to make the trip in time for the May 29 meeting in Challis. Schoen agreed that fall is a more realistic target, though members of the state’s congressional delegation might be able to attend the Challis meeting.
“I hope we’ll get into some more issues and continue the public process,” Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary said. “I don’t think anyone’s going to create a national monument without input from what we want here.”