Editor’s Note: This story is the second part of a series covering the past, present and future of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, which was created by an act of Congress on Aug. 22, 1972. The first installment was published on Aug. 17.
During the late 1960s, a long debate over conservation of the Sawtooth Mountains and surrounding area was coming to an end. Yet continued actions at the highest levels of government would continue to have impacts on the region well into the 21st Century.
As new housing developments and billboards sprang up on some of the 22,000 acres of privately owned land in the Sawtooth Valley, Idaho Sen. Frank Church proposed a bill that would establish a 350,000-acre national recreation area. Church was confident that the already-established 200,942-acre Sawtooth Primitive Area would become wilderness under the newly established Wilderness Act, protecting those primarily mountainous areas.
While many conservation organizations preferred the increased protections a national park would provide, ranchers and mining interests—as well as the Forest Service—weighed in on the side of a less restrictive national recreation area. Ultimately, test drilling by ASARCO mining company that began in the less accessible White Cloud Mountains to the west in 1968 pushed this debate to its conclusion.
Public resistance to the ASARCO molybdenum mine coalesced after an article by Salmon-based journalist Bob Johnson was featured in multiple newspapers, titled “Mine Firm Seeks Ore in Idaho High Country.”
“Castle Peak would have to be the last place on earth where molybdenite can be found to justify such a shocking intrusion,” wrote J. Robb Brady, general manager of the Idaho Falls Post-Register. But, Brady wrote that the mining company had rights under a law written more than a 100 years earlier that allowed a company to mine in a national forest if it could prove the operation to be “reasonably profitable.”
ASARCO had plans to build a road to Castle Peak the following summer. At that time, the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, had not been passed, which would have required public hearings for a mining road. In addition, the new Wilderness Act allowed new mining claims until 1983.
Conservationists, joined by news editors and a slew of scientists and engineers from the National Reactor Testing Station west of Idaho Falls, joined forces against powerful mining interests and their political supporters to renew a national park proposal with expanded boundaries reaching into the Boulder Mountains and Pioneer Mountains north and east of Ketchum. The Sierra Club joined in the fight.
Public meetings were called to conduct a three-year study of the Boulder, White Cloud and Pioneer mountains, as ASARCO announced that the mine would be open pit, processing 20,000 tons per day from what they expected to be a substantial deposit of molybdenite.
Debates raged across Idaho and in Washington, D.C., over whether mining interests would prevail in the White Clouds. Custer County business leaders approved of the mining. Dozens more mining claims were made in the area of Castle Peak and Little Boulder Creek.
A photograph taken by conservation advocate Ernie Day of zigzagging road scars made on Railroad Ridge in the White Clouds by ASARCO influenced many during months of public hearings around the state.
When Cecil Andrus won the Idaho governorship in 1971 behind the first ever “conservation” gubernatorial campaign in Idaho, the tables turned toward what would now become a much-expanded conservation area, one which would eventually limit mining. Concerns over ASARCO had led to an expansion of conservation efforts that would eventually encompass 756,000 acres within the current Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
The SNRA was established in 1972 with Public Law 92-400 to “assure the preservation and protection of the natural, scenic, historic, pastoral, and fish and wildlife values and to provide for the enhancement of the recreation values associated therewith.” Until 1974, it was thought that both a national park and national recreation area would co-exist in the region.
Since its inception the Sawtooth National Recreation Area has invested $68 million protecting the resource values for which the area was created. The SNRA’s private lands program has purchased 496 parcels of private land totaling 6,500 acres for $24 million, properties that are now in public trust. The program has also facilitated the donation of four private land parcels into the public trust and one land exchange.
Since 1972, $44 million has been spent securing conservation or scenic easements on 104 parcels totaling 17,000 acres. Conservation and scenic easements are established by paying landowners the value of their development rights to not build on portions of their land which are then left undeveloped in perpetuity.
Not all property owners wanted to sell or abandon their plans to live in the Sawtooth Valley. Of those 6,500 acres originally acquired by the SNRA, the government took into the public trust 43 condemned or abandoned parcels totaling 250 acres for $5 million. SNRA Private Lands Administrator Sharon Barnes said landowners were paid to relocate after receiving “fair market value” for their properties.
“Some landowners fought back with lawsuits, which were settled in various ways,” Barnes said. “Some landowners ultimately lost their properties to condemnation if they would not accept a negotiated settlement.”
Barnes said she recently read public comments from the early 1970s that illustrate the anger and frustration of homeowners forced from land they had legally purchased.
“They included fairly heart-wrenching statements by folks not wanting to lose their properties. Some had saved for their retirement homes there. There were also some fairly prescient things said, about ‘if this happens, only the very wealthy would be able to own property in the Sawtooth Valley,’” Barnes said.
By 1975, the Forest Service reported that it had $19 million set aside to acquire private land and/or conservation easements in the Sawtooth Valley from 193 landowners—around $110 million in today’s dollars, according to inflation calculations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Near Alturas Lake, a proposed 247-acre subdivision was purchased and preserved by the U.S. government, its cabins relocated elsewhere in the valley. Another development underway in the early 1970s at Obsidian in the central Sawtooth Valley drew the ire early on of conservation-minded people and perhaps contributed directly to the formation of the SNRA. Hundreds of homes there would have been built in a dense development that now is open to views of the Sawtooths. More than two dozen homes and trailers were removed or demolished at Obsidian.
Despite the successful fight against ASARCO, Custer County eventually got its molybdenum mine, located 21 miles southwest of Challis. The Thompson Creek Mine was by 1983 removing thousands of tons per day of rock from a mountainside at 8,000 feet elevation.
In 2015, President Obama signed into law enhanced protections for 275,665 acres within the SNRA now known as the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness, which includes Castle Peak. Obama had given Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson six months to pass a bill protecting the area, before he would begin consideration of a national monument proclamation to conserve the area.
While many proclaim the successes of conservation within the SNRA, the Sawtooth Valley has seen a significant amount of private land developed in the last 50 years, including subdivisions in Stanley that Barnes said are in violation of the SNRA’s long-established private land regulations.
“For example, there is a large unapproved subdivision at Casino Creek and another at Peach Creek. Also, there’s the Hosac Subdivision near Stanley,” Barnes said. Barnes pointed to homes on the slope north of Valley Creek, which sits above downtown Stanley, as a prominent example. Barnes said the subdivisions are in violation because the developers didn’t come to an SNRA area ranger for certification for use and development of the property, and that building designs never got reviewed.
“If they don’t receive certification they are in violation if they are on an agricultural or residential parcel,” Barnes said.
It remains unclear if there would ever be recourse for such violations. Barnes said the only tool that the United States has to remove violations of the SNRA’s private land regulations on parcels unencumbered by a scenic or conservation easement is condemnation of the parcels, which would involve paying property owners for fair market value before demolition.
“Congress did not provide for fines or citations before condemnation,” Barnes said. “And it’s been a long time since Congress has had an appetite for condemnation, especially for properties with such high property values.” ￼