On a clear day, the white peaks appear to float above the green forests of the Sawtooth Valley. There is something mysterious and captivating about this range, with its strange geology, rare plants, crystal lakes and magnificent wildlife. It's hard to believe that the mountains in this serene panorama have been a center of controversy for almost 100 years. The White Clouds, together with the Boulder Mountains to the south, have commanded a place of prominence in Idaho conservation history far greater than their small geographic position would suggest.
The arguments of those who advocate additional protection and those fearful of it have not changed in all those years. When opposing a national park in the Sawtooth country in 1936, the Boise Capital News stated: "We were afraid our little mountain heavens would be overrun by the uninitiated. We were afraid a uniformed man would stand by a gate demanding a ticket from us before we could enter into the wilderness we have cherished as our own all these years." The question has always been how to protect this wonderful country without overprotecting it.
Those for and against a national monument want things to "stay the same." Both sides seem to agree that this means avoiding crowding and detrimental impacts on the landscape, and permitting the current types of access and uses. But it does not mean no change in management. As more people come to enjoy the area, the potential for degradation of the resource and the visitor experience increases. This will happen with or without a monument.
Things will not stay the same by wishing it so. It will require active management to accomplish this. The question is whether a national monument management plan could become a vehicle to provide the needed protection to achieve the long-term goal of "keeping things the same." Or would a national monument bring more people and impacts and create the very thing that many people fear - more crowding and environmental degradation? There is both risk and opportunity in opening Pandora's box. Designation of a monument could provide an opportunity for a broad array of local stakeholders to come together and help set management direction, helping to ensure that change and impacts are managed according to local desires. Most of the opponents are not so much opposed to the protection that the advocates desire. Rather they are fearful of possible unintended consequences and heavy-handed restrictions imposed by government.
There is a way to find common ground in the White Clouds. The Forest Service and the BLM are much more committed to collaborative land management planning with local stakeholders than in years past. With clear mandates from and support of Congress, local collaborative groups are working with national forests and BLM districts throughout the West to design management plans that protect local economies, lifestyles, ecological integrity and recreational opportunities.
Protection needs to incorporate the wisdom of longtime residents who can provide perspective on changes in use and impacts on values. And also the voices of people who have never visited the White Clouds, but dream of it. And we must speak for the children who cannot yet voice their desires, but who will one day stand beside the East Fork and watch the salmon find their way home.
As I scramble down the ridge from my White Clouds perch, I take one last look back at the high peaks, the crystal lakes and wildflower meadows. Here is a landscape well worth preserving. We all stand on that common ground.
Steve Botti is president of the Stanley City Council.