In Idaho, our rich ranching heritage has existed for generations. Ranching has been a part of what has created our unique Western culture while providing a backbone for rural economies in our state. Ranching has managed to coexist in harmony with recreation for over 100 years without disruption or detrimental impact to the environment. That harmony is challenged today by an encroachment onto historic range lands within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area for the purpose of a proposed walking trail.
The U.S. Forest Service has begun building a 4.5-mile-long, 6.5-foot-wide commuter trail, cutting 1.5 miles through the private property of the Sawtooth Mountain Ranch. The ranch has pastured cattle in the summer months here for decades.
Consider for a moment the implications of such a public pathway through an active cattle pasture. Placing bikers, hikers, families, and thousands of tourists in the middle of an active cattle operation would bring liabilities similar as witnessed in Yellowstone where some adventurer tries to pet a buffalo. I’ve visited enough Idaho ranches to know that butting, chasing and stomping are not uncommon reactions from bulls and mother cows, especially when calves are present. Imagine a protective pet, a wandering trekker, or a curious child in the midst of open range, alone. The outcomes could be severe, even fatal.
The area also encompasses elk calving grounds, sandhill crane nesting areas and other critical wetland habitat oddly deemed unnecessary for an environmental analysis by the United States Forest Service. By breaking the massive trail into “segments,” the USFS was able to find a loophole to avoid the normally required NEPA analysis. The omission of NEPA is blatantly irresponsible in this critical habitat area but a convenient “look the other way” pass so the USFS could expeditiously deliver on a political promise. Idahoans deserve better.
The government has an easement to “permit public use” of the route as a trail. The easement has been used by the public for the past 15 years without incident, primarily in the winter when there are no hazards from cattle. For the Forest Service to pretend a limited easement gives them unrestricted rights is a clear example of government overreach and highlights a preferred advantage which no other applicant could enjoy. Proposing a trail that traverses across private rangeland and abusing an easement in place to preserve scenery is unacceptable. This trail holds no regard for the rights and livelihoods of ranchers and puts at risk public safety. Moreover, this federal encroachment jeopardizes the sanguine relationships enjoyed between ranchers and recreationalists that has managed to coexist in this beautiful valley for decades. The implementation of this trail will quickly erode those relationships, leaving an unforeseeable string of litigation, injury to users and costs for maintenance, repairs and upkeep that ultimately fall on the backs of Idaho taxpayers.
The unwillingness of the Forest Service to consider practical alternatives that favor the preservation of the state’s natural and historical assets is not the sort of precedent we should be setting in Idaho. Fortunately, there is still time to build this trail with the best interests of Idahoans and our state’s many visitors in mind. I stand in full support of the Sawtooth Mountain Ranch and their right to maintain and operate their property in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Preserving this iconic piece of land and its ranching heritage in the heart of one of our most scenic and recreational regions is an Idaho priority. Let’s find a better alternate route that preserves equitable and safe relationships between ranchers and recreationalists so that all can coexist as they have for generations.
Rep. Dorothy Moon (R-Stanley) represents District 8 in the Idaho Legislature. She is a member of the “Build a Better Trail” coalition, which opposes the Forest Service’s routing of the Stanley-Redfish Trail.