CHALLIS To see whats at stake in the discussion over a proposed Idaho national monument, turn west off U.S. 93 onto Spar Canyon Road southwest of Challis.
New snow reveals wild horse tracks on the road that snakes west toward the East Fork of the Salmon River. White Cloud peaks rise on the western horizon of this white-frosted desert, the heart of the landscape conservationists hope to convince President Obama to declare a monument.
Then turn left onto the 28-mile long East Fork Road, which parallels the Salmon tributary, a stronghold for spring chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout that can grow to 33 inches. Sheep Mountain dominates the landscape. Farther ahead are the unnamed 11,000-foot peaks of the Boulder Mountains.
Hundreds of deer, elk and bighorn sheep winter on generations-old ranches and new ranchettes that have cropped up over the past 20 years. Mountain goats, wolverines, raptors and tiny pikas thrive in the diverse ecosystem.
But this part of Custer County has been largely overlooked in the discussion about the monument, which has focused on the popular west side of the two mountain ranges stretching west of Idaho 75 from Stanley south to Ketchum within the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
Outside the SNRA are less-known tributaries, pinnacles, people and livelihoods that would be protected or regulated by the federal monument designation now being debated in Boise and Washington, D.C.
Theres an enormous piece of the East Fork watershed thats not in SNRA, not protected and split between two agencies, said Pat Ford, a Boise conservationist who has been trying to protect the area for more than 30 years. The watershed and the wildlife-migration corridors are fundamental.
The economic and recreational concerns of Custer County were at the center of a 10-year effort by Republican Rep. Mike Simpson to create a new Central Idaho wilderness area. Simpsons bill is dead and Custer Countys ranchers, outfitters and elected officials worry that a monument designation by Obama will change their lives without their involvement or input.
Some in the county are digging in their heels. But others are looking for ways to ensure that a monument designation they consider inevitable benefits the county, its small communities and its struggling economy.
A LIVING ON THE LAND
For more than 20 years, Louise Stark and her husband, Mike Scott, have guided hunters and anglers with pack strings of horses and mules into the backcountry of the East Fork and the White Cloud Mountains. The owners of White Cloud Outfitters in Challis were early supporters of wilderness protection of the White Clouds but did not back Simpsons Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, preferring the status quo.
Stark used to work for the Forest Service and wants to see the wildlife, fish and water quality protected. But she is skeptical about the proposed monument, worrying that a new management structure could make it hard or even impossible for outfitters to turn a profit because of red tape or land closures.
She has adopted two wild horses and worked them into their pack string. But she worries that the areas wild horse population which range officials say should be about 185 animals wont be managed, and the horses will over-graze and push out other wildlife.
Protection? Yes, Stark said. But we need to be able to use this country as hunters, fishermen, businesses and people who live here.
THE STATE OF CUSTER COUNTY
All but the southwest corner of the proposed national monument lies in Custer County, which has 3.1 million acres and only 4,900 residents; the southwest corner, and the SNRA headquarters, are in Blaine County. Custers economy has long been based on mining and ranching. There is little private land that can be taxed to pay for government services: 96 percent of the land in the Connecticut-sized county is owned by the federal government.
How would you take care of Connecticut with one sheriff and six deputies? asked Lin Hintze, a county commissioner who owns a custom meat business in Mackay.
Hintze is a rare elected Democrat in rural Idaho. He voted for Obama twice. Grammy-winning Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer-songwriter Carole King, a famously liberal environmentalist and county resident for more than 25 years, hosted a fundraiser for him.
But Hintze shares the frustration of other rural Idaho lawmakers with the way federal agencies have reduced access to the timber, mining and grazing the county built its economy on. He also has been on a crusade to get Congress to change its system of payments in lieu of taxes that is supposed to aid rural counties like Custer that have so much untaxable federal land, but which favors urban counties.
Its not just government policies affecting rural counties like Custer. As ranchers have gotten older, they have sold out often to absentee landowners. Today, more than 50 percent of southern Custer County is owned by people from somewhere else, including Ketchum and Sun Valley.
During peak tourism season in July, more than 500 people a day come over the scenic but unimproved Trail Creek Road from Ketchum, Hintze said.
Theyve got all the fancy hotels and fancy restaurants and they tear up our roads and use our ambulance service, Hintze said.
And they dont pay to support the community the way residents do, he laments.
A TALE OF THREE CITIES
Stanley sees more than 1 million visitors annually who come to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area to camp, fish, hike, mountain bike, motorcycle, boat, raft or, in the winter, ski and snowmobile.
In Challis, Christopher and Deb James have proposed a food-processing business. The couple bought several ranches, reopened a fish farm and is building a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse as part of a local food cooperative all of which is bringing change to this historic ranching and mining town. But Thompson Creek molybdenum mine southwest of Challis, which accounts for 40 percent of the value on the countys property tax rolls and has provided more than 300 high-paying jobs for 30 years, recently laid off 100 workers. So Challis future is uncertain.
Hunters fill Challis and Mackay in the fall and steelhead anglers can be found throughout the Salmon River corridor.
Mackay has farming and ranching and for the past 60 years shared some of the benefits of the Idaho National Laboratory, just 50 miles away. But as employment at the lab has dropped, so has Mackays population.
Mackay, Challis, Stanley its three different worlds in Custer County, said County Commission Chairman Wayne Butts, who owns an engine-repair shop in Challis.
Mackay High School graduated eight kids last year. Commissioner Hintze cites keeping enough people to sustain the school as a major goal.
Randy Ivie, owner of Ivies Foodliner in Mackay, has added food items for the growing number of second-home owners who come to his store.
Ivie also serves as fire chief and the head of the county search-and-rescue team. Hes disappointed that these part-time and second-home residents dont participate in ambulance, fire, rescue, schools or other community activities; there are too few volunteers to search, fight fires or perform emergency medical treatment. He, like many others, likes to climb Borah Peak, Idahos highest mountain, in the Lost River Range across the valley from the proposed monument. But he worries that more casual visitors to his county will get in trouble exploring some of Idahos wildest country and add to his workload.
More visitors will mean more volunteer burnout. And yet the tourists dont pay taxes to cover gas and equipment.
The problem is, we dont rescue local people on Borah, Ivie said. Theyre from Boise.
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING?
The Stanley City Council has held several meetings on the monument proposal but has not taken a stand. Stanley is a tourist town that has learned to live off the people who come to boat and camp at Redfish Lake, fish and float the Salmon, and explore the trails of the Sawtooths. But Stanley is wary of how a monument might change that dynamic.
There is already too many summer homes here, said Marcus Smith as he prepared to build Stanleys outdoor hockey rink for the winter. If you get all this publicity around a monument, it will bring more people without the infrastructure to handle them.
The area could use more visitors in the winter, when many of the motels, cabins and restaurants shut down. Smith said if a monument closes the area to snowmobiling, however, that would stop one of the areas of growth the region could handle.
The Mountain Village hotel, restaurant, grocery store and gas station, and other buildings and acreage have been for sale for more than five years by the Stan Harrah Properties. The fate of those properties could have as much effect on the county as any decision by the federal government.
It will have an impact and someones going to develop it eventually, said Laurie Gadwa, a Stanley City Council member. Hopefully the city can direct that development appropriately.
The City Council has written the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is leading the national monument review for Obama, asking for a representative to meet with local people and hear their concerns. Until that happens, uncertainty will grow, Gadwa said.
What are they promising financially? Gadwa said. I need to hear it from the horses mouth before I can make a commitment.
The SNRA was created in 1972. In addition to protecting fish, wildlife and pastoral values on the public land, the SNRA law allowed the ranches in the Sawtooth Valley to remain private; landowners were paid millions of dollars for easements that limited new development. The law also created the Sawtooth Wilderness Area.
The East Fork was left out. The SNRA law designated the Boulder and White Cloud mountains as areas to be studied as potential wilderness. But the Forest Service allowed motorized users on many of the trails and allowed mountain bike access that is not permitted in wilderness, said Ford, the Boise environmentalist.
I think conservationists thought putting the Boulder-White Clouds into a wilderness study area would mean action to study and protect the wilderness values, Ford said. Instead, the Forest Service allowed the wilderness values to decay.
Today, however, conservationists have the ear of the Obama administration. Hintze believes its just a matter of time before Obama creates the monument with a stroke of a pen under the Antiquities Act of 1906.
So hes trying to get the most he can for Mackay and Custer County. Obama cant solve the payment in lieu of taxes problem, so Hintze is asking proponents like the Wilderness Society to help him get Congress to reform the payments.
He wants Obama to declare Mackay the gateway to the new monument and to have a visitor center in Mackay and perhaps the headquarters, instead of in Ketchum, which he calls glitter gulch. The people it draws could make a real difference to tiny Mackay.
Mackay is the last stop before you get there, Hintze said. Thats what a gateway is.
Thats not a unanimous sentiment. Butts, Hintzes County Commission colleague, refuses to encourage the designation in any way including even saying what the county would want to get if a monument is designated. Instead, Butts proposes collecting a toll on the East Fork Road from anyone who isnt a resident.
Gary Cvecich of Stanley plows state highways and is president of the Salmon River Snowmobile Club. In the summer he prefers to hike, but in the winter he takes snow-covered roads deep into the backcountry, including a cherished overlook near Washington Lake where he can see the White Clouds highest point, Castle Peak.
He and other motorized users have met with Idaho Conservation League director Rick Johnson and have been pleasantly surprised that Johnson seemed to recognize their interests. Still, he and other snowmobilers oppose the monument.
But were not going to get a choice, Cvecich said. We have to negotiate or we wont get what we want.
Stark, the Challis outfitter, voices the mix of resignation and realism that many in Custer County have adopted: That people who will live in the shadows of a monument will ultimately be critical to its success.
It will be destined to failure if they dont involve us who live in this country, she said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484