More than 200 residents of Custer and Blaine counties gathered one night last week in the community building in Challis - a structure built with federal money that grew out of Rep. Mike Simpson's unsuccessful wilderness bill for the Boulder and White Cloud mountains.
Simpson had made sure that, to the degree it was politically possible, Custer County got upfront the projects and funding that were a part of his Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act. Unfortunately, Simpson was not able to deliver the 300,000 acres of wilderness that preservationists wanted from the bill, which stalled in Congress.
So representatives of the Idaho Conservation League and the Wilderness Society were asked to come to Challis on Thursday to defend their call to the Obama administration to protect 571,276 acres of federal lands as the Boulder-White Clouds National Monument. Twenty-four people spoke after the Conservation League's Rick Johnson and the Wilderness Society's Brad Brooks made their cases.
As you might expect, 23 of the 24 were opposed. And many were opposed not just to the idea of a monument but also to any federal action in the county. Many people questioned whether there was any threat that a monument would address in the scenic area that includes the alpine peaks and wildflower-covered meadows of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area or the high-plains desert to the east.
Most of the focus of preservationist interest is on the East Fork of the Salmon River watershed, one of the richest salmon and steelhead habitats in the region. It also provides winter range for elk, deer and bighorn sheep that crowd the farm fields in the valley, which support several ranching families.
Ensuring that these ranchers' interests are protected was as important to many of the residents who spoke Thursday as was protecting their access to the lands where they hunt, fish, motorcycle, ride horseback and snowmobile. Simpson's bill would have allowed private funding to pay to retire the ranchers' grazing leases.
"We think the monument can provide the same options for ranchers along the East Fork," Brooks said.
But until the Obama administration shows its cards, Brooks really doesn't know. This uncertainty was among the strongest objections, raised in a performance by Campbell Gardett of Mackay.
He pulled away his shirt to reveal a second shirt with the words "Show me the text," referring to the proclamation that Obama would sign under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish a national monument. He and others said the Antiquities Act - which lets a president take action without having to get Congress to agree - is not the appropriate tool to protect the area.
But Johnson and Brooks and other advocates are not going away.
"The only reason we're here now is we could not get Congress to move," Johnson said.
And they have the attention of the administration, led by a president most of the 200 people at the meeting did not vote for. Bob Hayes, who lives in the Sawtooth Valley and headed the Sawtooth Society for years, hopes that rewarding supporters is not the motivation behind a potential monument.
"I would hope that a land-use decision of this magnitude would be made primarily based on policy as opposed to the politics," Hayes said in an interview Friday.
The Challis meeting was the second in a series co-sponsored by Custer and Blaine counties, which have taken opposite stands on the monument: Custer is opposed and Blaine is for it. Despite their differences, after the meeting the two counties co-signed letters to the secretaries of agriculture and interior asking that they come to Idaho to meet with people in the two counties to hear concerns and answer questions that the county commissioners and the advocates like Johnson and Brooks can't answer.
"Certainly we hope they would engage in a conversation with us," said Custer County Commission Chairman Wayne Butts.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484