Letters from the West

Take a trip into the heart of Idaho’s newest wilderness

The shrieking chatter of the gray jay, also known as the camp robber, was my alarm clock Saturday morning in the Chamberlain Basin at the base of Castle Peak in the White Cloud Mountains.

It was the sound of wildness, of ancient truths, connecting me to the people and creatures who have visited here from time immemorial.

I shared the experience with a group led by Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, who returned for the seventh time to the wild heart of Idaho. This was his first visit since President Obama signed the legislation in August 2015 that Simpson had sponsored and carried for more than 13 years, designating this place, the Boulder-White Clouds, as wilderness.

He came with Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, who had been at Simpson’s side all along the way. Like all good journeys, the trip changed both of them.

Johnson has gone from a strident, no-compromise outsider to one of the nation’s leading collaborating conservationists, whose successes have brought his values into the mainstream. Simpson has gone from a traditional conservative Idaho Republican to one of the strongest western GOP voices for preserving wild places since Theodore Roosevelt.

For Johnson, the trip to this summit began in the 1980s. And there were other veterans in the party: Tom Tidwell, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, grew up in Idaho and attended Boise’s Capital High School. Our guide and congenial host was another key figure in the Boulder-White Clouds saga, Ed Cannady, who also grew up in Idaho and has been a wilderness ranger and backcountry manager since the late 1980s in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and the White Clouds. He knows these mountains better than anyone alive.

Cannady and Simpson’s chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, a rancher’s son and former executive director of the Oregon Cattleman’s Association, drew the wilderness area maps, working with scores of people from all sides of the debate. Slater joined the group late, flying in from Washington to Boise, driving through the Pioneer Fire, up winding Pole Creek Road through three river crossings and hiking the seven-mile Germania Creek and Castle Divide trails in three hours, arriving at our camp before dark.

There he joined the others, including Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Kit Mullen, longtime Simpson friend John Medema, Simpson staffers Nikki Wallace and Jamie Neill, Tidwell aide Doug Crandall and me and Bill Manny, my editor at the Statesman.

The trip was designed to celebrate the bill’s passage and to hand over the job of protecting the wilderness from the legislative arena to the managers in the Forest Service who are now its guardians. For Manny, who has climbed and backpacked all over the Northwest, it was a chance to scale the 11,815-foot summit of Castle Peak, where he met two other Boiseans, Derek Houck and Mike Beukelman. Three people, on a beautiful August Sunday, had the highest mountain in the range to themselves.

Many Idahoans see remote Castle Peak only in photos or when flying over the area. J. Robb Brady, the late publisher of the Post Register, showed me Castle Peak from the Big Boulder lakes on the east side on a hike in 1990.

He was the first newspaperman to editorialize against turning Castle Peak into an open pit molybdenum mine in 1968. His editorials, and those of Ken Robison of the Idaho Statesman, caught the attention of Cecil Andrus, who made stopping the mine the central issue of his 1970 race for governor.

Andrus won that race, stopped the mine and went on to become Interior Secretary. He convinced President Jimmy Carter to use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to pressure Congress into passing the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, protecting more than 100 million acres in national parks, refuges and wilderness. Andrus pushed for a national monument for the White Clouds to help Simpson get his wilderness bill passed.

Brady, who died in 2011 at 92, always believed the White Clouds he loved would be protected, because it was the right thing to do. Johnson, Cannady and Simpson, who otherwise have very different political views, shared that belief.

It wasn’t easy. Wilderness is a human concept, expressed as federal law in 1964 as a way to preserve places “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Wilderness — creating it, exploring it — shouldn’t be easy.

For Simpson and myself, two men in our 60s, the climb to 9,800 feet and back was not easy. But it made the view of Castle Peak and the Chamberlain Basin all the more rich and exquisite. So were the sights of nine mountain goats that cavorted at the lake and a herd of seven elk that crossed my trail.

As we gazed at the majestic view, I said to the ICL’s Johnson that the mountain itself wouldn’t care what he, Simpson and the others had done.

“People care,” Johnson said.

That’s because preserving wildness is protecting our own humanity.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker