For more than 12 years I covered environmental and natural resource issues in south-central Idaho for the Twin Falls Times-News. One of the issues I covered regularly was the ongoing efforts to protect the parts of the Boulder-White Clouds that had long ago been proposed as wilderness.
The area's unique natural qualities deserve protection.
The Boulder-White Clouds national monument proposal is not an elitist land grab, as some suggest. It is about forcing federal land managers to uphold their own recommendations. Yes, it is about wilderness. But wilderness recommendations included in the monument were made many years ago.
The proposal includes about 592,000 acres, about half of which are within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, established by Congress in 1972. About 438,000 acres are national forest land and about 154,000 acres are BLM lands in the East Fork of the Salmon River watershed - most of which was proposed as wilderness more than 40 years ago.
The Forest Service, in its 2003 Sawtooth National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan, recommended 219,647 acres in the Boulder-White Clouds for wilderness designation.
Areas recommended for wilderness must be managed as wilderness, pending final decision by Congress. Only Congress may designate wilderness or reject such a designation.
Wilderness values of the Boulder-White Clouds were recognized in 1975. A Department of Interior study recommended that these high mountain peaks should "be managed essentially as wilderness national parks, with little development," and "closed to nearly all motorized transportation."
National park status never materialized, but the report suggests that land managers feared a national recreation area designation might not be adequate to protect the wilderness character of the Boulder-White Clouds.
They were right.
Despite its recommendations, the Forest Service has not managed the Boulder-White Clouds within the SNRA to protect its wilderness character. Visitors to the White Clouds expecting a wilderness experience have been disappointed by the increases in motorcycles and the ruts and scars visible in the landscape - not what one expects from a proposed wilderness area.
Probably the biggest threat to the wild character of the Boulder-White Clouds has been motorized use. The SNRA has not been immune to the explosion in the use of off-highway vehicles in Idaho. Within the portion of the SNRA recommended for wilderness, motorized use is allowed on 51 miles of trails, and 92 percent is open to snowmobile use.
Federal land managers over the years have effectively eroded the viability of proposed wilderness and reduced the amount of land that would still qualify as wilderness.
But decisions on wilderness are up to Congress, not the Forest Service. By failing to protect areas it has proposed for wilderness, the Forest Service has usurped the authority of Congress. That is at the core of the monument proposal.
The monument proposal would protect those wilderness values. It also would protect the area from new mining development, provide consistent landscape-scale management, and protect critical salmon and steelhead habitat and important wildlife habitat.
Many Idaho hunters and anglers support the monument designation to break the congressional stalemate and protect some of the best backcountry hunting and fishing in the country from new mines or irresponsible motorized use, says the Idaho group Sportsmen for Boulder-White Clouds.
For whatever reasons, federal land managers have been unable to protect those values.
In the absence of congressional action, the monument proposal would protect the area's essential values. If Congress wants to weigh in, fine. If Congress thinks it's not a good idea, so be it. But that decision is not up to the Forest Service, the BLM or Custer County.
Niels S. Nokkentved has worked as a writer and newspaper reporter in Idaho and the Northwest for 25 years.