Monument at stake in central Idaho

Should the entire Sawtooth National Recreation Area be included in the designation?

rbarker@idahostatesman.comJune 4, 2013 

Redfish Lake is one of the best-known and most visited sites in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. 

DARIN OSWALD — doswald@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

  • The Antiquities Act of 1906, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, gives presidents the power to preserve special places. Roosevelt used it to protect the Grand Canyon (now a national park) and 17 other sites, all in the West. Sixteen presidents have created 136 national monuments.

    Idaho has three: 1. Craters of the Moon National Monument near Arco, created by Calvin Coolidge, with an addition, Craters of the Moon National Preserve, created by Bill Clinton; 2. Minidoka National Monument near Rupert, created by Clinton; 3. Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, created by Congress.

    Congress also established the Nez Perce National Historic Preserve, a series of sites along the trail of the tribe's 1877 retreat; and the City of Rocks National Reservation in Southeast Idaho. About 50 square miles of the Yellowstone National Park lie in Idaho as well.

    What's a national recreation area?

    Most are areas protected by Congress for recreation use around water, such as Idaho's Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. The Sawtooth National Recreation Area, protected by an act of Congress, is therefore a little different than other recreation areas.

    What's wilderness?

    Federal wilderness is land closed by Congress to logging, road-building and use of motorized and mechanized transportation under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Idaho has 12 wilderness areas.

    Stanley Ranger Station closes on summer Saturdays

    The office will be open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Visitors wanting information about trail and recreation conditions, or who want to buy maps and guidebooks, can get them at the Redfish Visitor Center at Redfish Lake or the Stanley Museum between Lower Stanley and Stanley on Idaho 75.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified how Alaska's Misty Fjord is managed in the Tongass National Forest. It is a part of the Ketchikan-Misty Fjords Ranger District.

Backers of a proposed national monument for the Boulder and White Cloud mountains east of Stanley and north of Sun Valley want to make sure it's the right size and has the right federal agency to give the region the focused "showcase management" it deserves.

But as the Obama administration undertakes a review of a possible monument designation, just how much of the 500,000-acre roadless area in central Idaho would be included in the proposed monument and how it would be managed remain open questions.

In a visit to Boise last month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pointed to Chimney Rock, a 4,700-acre archeological site in the San Juan National Forest in Colorado designated by Obama as a monument, as a model for decision-making that involves all stakeholders. Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Becky Nourse pointed to Misty Fjords National Monument in Alaska as an example of how the U.S. Forest Service has addressed monument-management issues.

Craig Gehrke, Wilderness Society regional representative in Boise, said Obama should consider including the entire 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area in a new monument. Idaho Recreation Council Executive Director Sandra Mitchell doesn't see the need for any changes, but she knows the political reality: Whatever is chosen needs only President Obama's signature to become law under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

"Our ultimate goal is to protect access and protect lands and protect the economic stability of Custer County," said Mitchell, who represents motorized users such as snowmobilers and ATVers.

For more than 40 years, most of the area surrounding Stanley and south almost to Sun Valley has been part of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

The SNRA was created as a political compromise in 1972, recognizing the region's national significance and placing recreation, fish and wildlife protection above other uses. It also sought to protect the pastoral area's ranching heritage. But observers for years have criticized the Forest Service for not showcasing the area: It is one unit in the larger Sawtooth National Forest and hasn't had the money or the profile envisioned by the law.

Advocates say the area should, like a national park, be recognized as a nationally significant scenic and recreational wonder and get appropriate money, staffing and visitor amenities. Backers like to compare it to Grand Teton National Park, which had a 2012 budget of $12.1 million. The SNRA budget was $2.8 million.

A HIGHER PROFILE

If a monument is created, it won't be run by the National Park Service. Vilsack and environmental groups pushing the Obama administration to elevate the status area are not resurrecting the old debate over which agency would better manage the area.

In the 1980s, then-U.S. Rep. Larry Craig convened an advisory group to examine whether the SNRA should be a national park. After the Forest Service made a renewed commitment to elevate the area's profile, the panel completed its work without making a recommendation for a park.

Gehrke and Nourse both said the Obama administration's review should at least consider turning the entire SNRA into a national monument.

"Something like that would certainly be a valid question to ask," said Nourse, who runs the area out of Twins Falls.

Boise State University Professor John Freemuth served on Craig's panel and said the group concluded that the SNRA's problem was being a part of the Sawtooth National Forest and not a separate Forest Service unit. As one part of a larger bureaucratic unit, funding and focus are compromised, he said.

"The SNRA administrator does not hold as high level of a position in the Forest Service organizational structure as a national forest administrator," Freemuth wrote in the 1988 report of the advisory panel to Craig.

Similar bureaucratic distinctions have affected other Idaho outdoor amenities, said Gehrke. He cites the failure of the Forest Service to make the Frank Church-River of No Return a single unit in the 1990s as a case in point. Instead, the agency created a wilderness coordinator position to oversee the wilderness area, which straddles six separate national forests. That coordinator post later was eliminated.

This year, the Idaho Legislature declared the "Frank" - its more common nickname - a disaster area, citing uncleared and unmaintained trails as evidence it's not getting the time, attention or money it should from the Forest Service.

"I don't want a monument that's run out of Twin Falls," Gehrke said. "They've got to make a showpiece out of it."

Freemuth said the Forest Service could place some of the SNRA and the Boulder-White Clouds under a separate manager outside the Sawtooth National Forest.

INVOLVING STAKEHOLDERS

Colorado's Chimney Rock is largely managed by the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association, which works with the Pagosa Springs Ranger District. It has begun a two-year management plan that, like Vilsack's review, will be driven by the stakeholders, said Michael Whiting, an Archuleta County commissioner who pushed monument status unsuccessfully with Congress for years.

"What we would like to do is tie an economic development plan to that management," Whiting said.

Vilsack said he will work with Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, local supporters and others on the Boulder-White Clouds proposal. Republican Rep. Mike Simpson has been working for more than a decade to get 332,000 acres of the Boulder-White Clouds and Jerry Peak protected as wilderness.

Former Gov. Dirk Kemp-thorne, when he served as Interior secretary, considered recommending the Boulder-White Clouds for designation as a monument, even drafting a proclamation for President Bush to sign. But Simpson, who had hopes of getting his wilderness bill past Congress, told him to hold off.

Mitchell and her group have fought Simpson's wilderness proposal for more than a decade. She thinks the SNRA and the Idaho Roadless Rule provide adequate protections and access, but she knows she can't block a monument like she did Simpson's wilderness bill.

"The conversation needs to go outside the environmental community," Mitchell said. "It needs the governor, the motorized recreation community and the people of Custer County."

Gehrke and Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson agree. Johnson told his members at its annual Wild Idaho conference at Redfish Lake last month that he wanted a national monument in which all Idahoans could take pride.

"We want something that stands the test of time," Gehrke said. "That said, we're not going to let the clock run out."

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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