From the knife-edged ridge of the White Cloud Peaks, boulders tumble away toward Sapphire Lake, 1,000 feet below. Nearby, mountain goats cling to a rocky perch, blending with the white limestone. Farther away, the wildflower gardens of Railroad Ridge float on the horizon. Far below, through elk pastures along the East Fork, salmon complete their 900-mile spawning journey. This is not wilderness, as some hoped it would be. It is not a national park, and will not be. It is not a national monument, although it could become one. One thing’s for sure — it is more than a recreation area. Recreation must tread gently on this land in order to preserve the experience of wildness.
Congress protected the White Clouds in 1972 as a recreation area, providing for the “management, utilization, and disposal of natural resources insofar as their utilization will not substantially impair the purposes for which the recreation area was established.” Many feel that the law has failed to protect this landscape for future generations. Some propose a national monument as the means to provide a new protection mandate. Others prefer wilderness designation because its offers an unambiguous protection mandate. The Sawtooth National Recreation Area may have prevented mining near Castle Peak, but the slow and steady impacts of increased recreation on plants and wildlife and their habitats will continue to grow until the wildness slowly fades from our vision and memory.
Those who come after us will see only remnants of the wildness that we know, just as we see only remnants of the wildness the early explorers experienced. The scars of motorized vehicles in fields of fragile alpine plants bear witness to the vanishing wildness of Ants Basin. What will this crown jewel of the SNRA look like in 50 years?
Overcoming fear can lead to great reward. Just ask any mountaineer or whitewater river runner. But fear of the uncertain outcome of a monument proclamation leads some to choose the status quo over the opportunity for a more sustainable protection mandate. A monument proclamation could eliminate much of that uncertainty with a clear statement of management principles. These could provide a vision for a management plan and preserve access for a variety of uses. A proclamation also could limit development of tourism infrastructure, preventing the mass tourism impacts that some fear a monument would trigger. Wilderness or monument would each consist of an additional management overlay on the existing SNRA. Such overlays for wild rivers, wilderness and salmon recovery are common in Idaho national forests and are easily integrated into existing management plans.
For some, a monument conjures the sound of a gate closing, excluding people from the recreation opportunities that have become part of their lives. Others fear it will result in hordes of visitors overrunning the meadows and peaks. The more optimistic will see an opportunity to empower local people to come together, perhaps without common vision, but with common purpose, in the spirit of compromise, to protect this landscape. Sometimes it is better to just push off into the current, despite the din of the rapids.
Each step along the White Clouds ridge requires maintaining one’s balance against the forces of loose, shifting rock and strong, gusting winds. Managing this landscape requires balancing protection with appropriate use. National monument and wilderness initiatives offer paths forward to establish this balance. Despite the perils of uncertain ground ahead and strong headwinds, now is the time to take that step and resolve the unfinished business in the White Clouds. We step forward with hope and confidence. The summit lies just ahead.
Steve Botti is City Council president in Stanley.