Idea for a Boulder White Clouds Monument makes Custer County uneasy

The overlooked East Fork of the Salmon River would become the heart of a Boulder-White Clouds National Monument

rbarker@idahostatesman.comDecember 15, 2013 

  • MONUMENTS: THE POWER OF A PRESIDENT’S PEN

    How does it work?

    The Antiquities Act of 1906, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, gives presidents the power to preserve special places without a vote of Congress. 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.

    How many monuments in Idaho?

    Three: 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; Minidoka National Historic Site near Jerome, created by Clinton; and 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 Reserve in Southeast Idaho.

    What’s a national recreation area?

    Most are areas protected by Congress for use around water, such as Idaho's Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. The Sawtooth NRA, protected by an act of Congress, is therefore a little different. Elsewhere in Idaho, groups are working on developing a proposal for a Caldera national monument around Mesa Falls in eastern Idaho adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.

    What's wilderness?

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

    Why do some people prefer a monument over the SNRA?

    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 for years observers have criticized the Forest Service for not showcasing the area. 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.

    What’s happening with the proposed Idaho monument?

    Obama administration officials have said they want to meet with communities and evaluate possible monuments.

    President Barack Obama has used the Antiquities Act nine times to establish national monuments without congressional approval, including the Rio Grande Del Norte in New Mexico and the San Juan Islands in Washington.

    “If Congress doesn’t step up to act to protect some of these important places that have been identified by communities and people throughout the country, then the president will take action,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said this fall, without specifically mentioning Idaho. “We cannot and will not hold our breath forever.”

    Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Boise in May. Vilsack, who is in charge of the Forest Service, said the administration would evaluate the Boulder-White Clouds area as a possible national monument.

    What happened to CIEDRA?

    Republican Rep. Mike Simpson spent more than a decade pushing his Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, which includes wilderness protection for more than 300,000 acres of the 760,000-acre Boulder-White Clouds roadless area, including the Jerry Peak area on BLM land on the far east side of the proposed monument boundary. That proposal never won support from Gov. Butch Otter or Sen. Jim Risch and has been given up for dead in Congress.

  • ABOUT ROCKY BARKER

    Rocky is the Idaho Statesman’s energy/environment reporter and has been writing about the Salmon River country, Idaho’s wild heart, since 1985.

CHALLIS — To see what’s 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.

“There’s an enormous piece of the East Fork watershed that’s 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. Simpson’s bill is dead and Custer County’s 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 Simpson’s 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 area’s wild horse population — which range officials say should be about 185 animals — won’t 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. Custer’s 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.

It’s 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.

“They’ve got all the fancy hotels and fancy restaurants and they tear up our roads and use our ambulance service,” Hintze said.

And they don’t 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 county’s 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 Mackay’s population.

Mackay, Challis, Stanley — “it’s 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 Ivie’s 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. He’s disappointed that these part-time and second-home residents don’t 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, Idaho’s 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 Idaho’s wildest country and add to his workload.

More visitors will mean more volunteer burnout. And yet the tourists don’t pay taxes to cover gas and equipment.

“The problem is, we don’t rescue local people on Borah,” Ivie said. “They’re 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 Stanley’s 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 someone’s 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 horse’s mouth before I can make a commitment.”

FACING REALITY

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 it’s just a matter of time before Obama creates the monument with a stroke of a pen under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

So he’s trying to get the most he can for Mackay and Custer County. Obama can’t 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. “That’s what a gateway is.”

That’s not a unanimous sentiment. Butts, Hintze’s 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 isn’t 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 we’re not going to get a choice,” Cvecich said. “We have to negotiate or we won’t 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 don’t involve us who live in this country,” she said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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