KETCHUM - Muffy Ritz skied 3,000 feet up the side of Durrance Peak in the Boulder Mountains, about 6 miles north of her Ketchum home, one day this month.
The former Olympic Nordic skier climbed three hours to get a panorama of the Wood River Valley and the Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges from the 9,500-foot peak. Then she skied down in an hour, hurrying to make an afternoon appointment.
"It's really nice to get an experience you really can't get anywhere else," said Ritz, two-time winner of the American Birkebeiner, the nation's top cross-country ski race.
Access to breathtaking skiing, hiking, backpacking and mountain biking is what attracted Ritz and the 27 other former Olympians she counts as neighbors to Blaine County.
Eleven years ago, mountain bike champion Rebecca Rusch traveled around the country, living in her truck and looking for a place to make her home. She found Ketchum and the Boulder-White Clouds.
"It's like backyard remote," said Rusch, a six-time world champion. "I can be there in a half-hour and I will likely not see another soul."
Famous athletes, movie stars and billionaire business icons who annually trek to the Wood River Valley's world-class outdoor locales have prompted other rural Idaho communities to treat the valley almost like a foreign land. A Custer County commissioner, when discussing the proposed Boulder-White Clouds National Monument that Blaine County supports, described Sun Valley and environs derisively as "glitter gulch."
Blaine County residents and business leaders say the county is far more like the rest of rural Idaho than its critics acknowledge. At its core are the shopkeepers, ski instructors, government workers, farmers and service-industry employees who scratch out a living, just like their Idaho neighbors.
Like people in other resource-dependent communities, their lives are tied to the elements. When a snow drought hit in December and January this winter, skiing at Sun Valley dried up and the economy suffered.
The Beaver Creek Fire that filled the valley with smoke and forced several evacuations in August hurt summer tourism. The recession cooled off the valley's construction economy and slowed two decades of rapid growth.
But unlike much of rural Idaho, Blaine County has developed a diverse economy that includes not just recreation and farming, but also telecommuters and small businesses - laboratories and engineering firms that do business worldwide. This has given Blaine County an infrastructure that lets it manage, build and promote its economy and lifestyle, said Larry Schoen, Blaine County commission chairman.
"In today's world, recreation is a dominant part of our community," said Schoen, who lives on a 300-acre ranch south of Bellevue. "The public lands are viewed as a tremendous asset for our community."
That's why the commission passed a resolution asking President Barack Obama to establish a Boulder-White Clouds monument. Schoen met with administration officials in Washington, D.C., in March, and he's hopeful representatives will come to Idaho in June to meet with local residents to discuss their plans.
Designation of a 570,000-acre national monument has emerged as a serious option since the death of Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson's Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill.
His measure would have protected swaths of wilderness while preserving some popular ATV and motorcycle trails. But a monument can be created with a president's signature and does not require congressional action; it also has more management flexibility than does land designated wilderness, which generally bans all mechanized uses, including bicycles.
The outlines for the proposed monument in the mountain ranges east of Stanley and Idaho 75, and north of Ketchum, would preserve wilderness characteristics that exist in the roadless area, while also ensuring mountain bike access on popular trails north of Sun Valley.
Schoen knows that Custer County has passed a resolution expressing its ideological opposition to Obama designating a monument. And Schoen, like many Blaine County residents, is stung by the "glitter gulch" label.
"I don't understand that attitude," he said.
PATH TO DIVERSITY
Blaine County turned from the traditional rural Idaho economic engines of mining, logging and ranching in 1936, when railroad magnate Averill Harriman built the Sun Valley Resort next to Ketchum. Since then, the area has grown from a seasonal ski resort to a year-round recreation destination that attracts hikers, fishermen, backpackers and mountain bikers.
With the second-busiest airport in Idaho, Blaine County serves as a gateway to whitewater rafting on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Much of the region's backcountry opportunities are north of Sun Valley in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, which spreads into Custer County.
Blaine County has 2,650 square miles of mountains, river valleys and rich farmland, an area larger than Delaware. Nearly 80 percent of the county is public land.
Until the recession hit in 2008, Blaine County had been one of the state's fastest-growing counties, doubling in population since 1980. By 2013, it had 21,000 residents.
Access to world-class skiing and year-round outdoor recreation made the Wood River Valley a mecca for second-home development for decades, bringing wealthy and famous part-time residents, expensive real estate and a richness of property taxes.
But despite its reputation, Blaine County's median household income is $51,728 - less than Ada County's $55,499.
Idaho's median income in 2012 was $45,489. In Custer County, it's $41,698. The Census Bureau estimates that 7.8 percent of Blaine County's residents live below the poverty level, compared to 15.1 percent statewide and 18.7 percent for Custer.
"We have extremes of poverty and wealth," said Schoen.
A national monument won't necessarily bring a wave of new visitors. But it will build on the foundation created when the Sawtooth National Recreation Area was established in 1972, Schoen said; its headquarters are north of town. Blaine County is seeking to develop all aspects of its economy with "appropriate" industry that fits into its recreation and scenic attraction.
Schoen is working with Custer County and Stanley officials to try to develop a joint position that brings together all of their concerns. With the recent temporary closing of the Thompson Creek Mine west of Challis, he's hopeful for a more open dialogue about capitalizing on the potential benefits of a national monument.
Ultimately, he'd like to work with leaders in Lemhi County as well to form a "Salmon River Compact" to explore joint economic opportunities.
"Just because we're talking about recreation and tourism, it doesn't mean mining is going away or that timbering is going away or that other traditional industries are going away," Schoen said.
FROM WILDERNESS TO MONUMENT
In 1987, Andy Munter, owner of Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum, went to Washington to lobby against an Idaho wilderness bill co-sponsored by Republican Sen. James McClure and Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus. A hiker and a backpacker, Munter, like many conservationists at the time, didn't think the bill protected enough of the Boulder-White Clouds.
"In retrospect, maybe that wasn't so smart," Munter said.
Then, mountain biking was just beginning to catch on, and riders stayed on the relatively easy Fisher Creek Trail on the west side of the White Clouds. But as mountain bikes improved and as riders - such as Rusch and Ritz - got stronger, bicyclists rode deeper into the 700,000-acre roadless area.
A series of trails had already become popular with motorcycle riders. But mountain bikers rode to areas that previously had been limited to hiking and horseback. Simpson worked with user groups to draft the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, which he first proposed in 2002 to protect 332,000 acres in three separate wilderness areas in the Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges.
Motorized users never signed on to Simpson's effort, seeing any new wilderness as a loss of access. And mountain bikers were divided between those who wanted full access and those who wanted wilderness to be off-limits.
A KEY AGREEMENT
Earlier this month, representatives of the Idaho Conservation League, Wood River Bicycle Coalition, International Mountain Bicycling Association and The Wilderness Society announced an agreement in support of national monument status for the Boulder-White Clouds. Their proposal includes specific wild areas that would remain open to mountain bikers, including steep-trailed Ants Basin and the scenic Castle Divide trail.
Rusch said she has cursed her way up into Ants Basin, sometimes having to carry her bike - a trip worth the effort for her champion legs.
"It's the real deal," she said. "For that reason, there aren't 5,000 people waiting at the trail head."
Munter, a hiker and backpacker first, considers Ants Basin one of his favorite places and won't necessarily like sharing it with bicycles.
"Part of me doesn't like that, part of me says that's OK," he said.
But most of all, he wants the area's unique plants and wildlife protected, especially in the East Fork of the Salmon River watershed on the eastern side of the monument proposal. That area has some of the most important salmon habitat in the Columbia Basin, he said.
Left out of the monument agreement - at least for now - are motorized users.
Bryan Baird is sales and service manager of Woodside Motorsports in Hailey, the only snowmobile shop in the valley. He prefers that things stay like they are right now.
"My personal opinion is that the Sawtooth National Recreation Area is not broken and doesn't need fixing," Baird said.
But he's talking with the Idaho Conservation League, as are other motorized recreation fans who love the Boulder-White Clouds as much as the hikers and bikers do. He won't rule out an agreement similar to the one mountain bikers negotiated. His goal is to preserve the access snowmobilers and motorcyclists have today.
"If they make the lines on the map the same," he said, "it's going to be a whole lot easier."
'WE LIVE HERE'
Bike champions Rusch and Ritz share that vision of including all users - including snowmobilers such as Baird - in a future monument. Rusch said she hopes that the Obama administration follows the lead of local people willing to collaborate, but acknowledges that if local folks are divided, someone in Washington might decide.
"We live here and we can make the right decisions about the place we love," she said.
The mountain biking agreement worked because both sides care about the Boulder-White Clouds, said Ritz, an ICL member since 1990. Public demand and evolving technology - a few years ago, few predicted that mountain bikes would have fat, puffy tires that allow riders to plow down snowy trails - make finding agreement imperative, she said.
"None of us know the future," Ritz said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484