Rocky Barker: Quarrel quiets over monument idea

November 11, 2013 

Sometimes people and groups get off on the wrong foot even when they have common goals.

That's what happened with the proponents of a national monument for the Boulder-White Clouds and the Sawtooth Society, a conservation group established to support the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

In July, the society ran a series of full-page ads in Idaho newspapers warning of "unintended consequences" from a national monument.

The ads came after a May presentation by Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson laid out his group's broad goals for a monument. He was outlining a new strategy for protecting the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, with the chances of Rep. Mike Simpson's wilderness bill all but dead for now in Congress.

The society's ads angered former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, who has been the most prominent voice for President Barack Obama to protect the area using the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows a president to bypass Congress and create a national monument with the stroke of a pen.

A founder of the Sawtooth Society along with Bethine Church, former Republican Rep. Orval Hansen and the late Sen. Jim McClure, Andrus was mad the group took what he saw as a position counter to his without first talking to him. He saw the orchestrated campaign as an act not of a conservation group but of a new cast of characters who own property in the Sawtooth Valley — what he called a "homeowner's association."

"They don't want a bunch of people tromping on their back yard," Andrus told me this month.

That perception continued a week ago at a meeting organized by the Stanley City Council for the Wilderness Society, the Idaho Conservation League and a new group, Sportsmen for the Boulder-White Clouds, to present their vision and hear the concerns of local residents.

Sawtooth Society President Paul Hill and Executive Director Gary O'Malley peppered the Wilderness Society's Rob Mason and others about the concerns they shared with local business groups and other skeptics.

Among those concerns: the lack of hotels, restaurants, repair shops and other businesses to handle what could be a massive influx of new people into the hamlet of 63 year-round residents. Others point to the already overwhelmed local government capacity to deal with search-and-rescue and ambulance services.

Residents asked: What was so wrong with the SNRA that a monument was needed to fix it?

Then there is the inherent uncertainty of the Antiquities Act process, since in the end the president can do whatever he wants. After that, the agencies in charge — in this case, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management — would write a management plan based on the language in the proclamation.

Mason came away from that first meeting convinced the Sawtooth Society was ginning up opposition to a proposed monument.

The day before, I had quoted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a Statesman article saying the administration would look to avoid conflict in its choices of monuments to consider. To proponents, the society's actions might be seen as an effort to chase off Jewell and the administration.

When I talked to Hill, he said Andrus' comments about the Sawtooth Society were "inaccurate and unfair." The group is not opposed to a monument, he said. But he did acknowledge that the society had not talked to the former Interior secretary before it kicked off the ad campaign.

Hill also said he called Mason after the Monday meeting to apologize for what might have been considered "badgering questions." Mason said he replied to Hill that unless the Sawtooth Society changed its approach, he was doubtful they could find common ground.

The Sawtooth Society had scheduled its own meeting on the monument for Thursday, with its own speakers. Hill told me Wednesday that the society intended to change its "tone."

Mason was skeptical. But he and O'Malley met and cleared the air. On Thursday, Hill opened the society's meeting saying the group supported increased protection for the Boulder-White Clouds and that a national monument could do that.

"I have to say, I was surprised in the change of tone, tentatively and skeptically happy," Mason said. He said he is hopeful the groups could bridge the past differences and move forward.

Hill agreed: "I think working together we can make real progress."

Chalk up one more win for the forgotten skill of listening. And give both groups credit for not digging in their heels. There's a lesson here for a society that these days wants to widen narrow slices of disagreement rather than start from where we all agree: wanting to do right by the state and the wild lands we love.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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