Clarification: Per the judge’s ruling in June, work can begin on the entire trail, including the portion that goes through Sawtooth Mountain Ranch.
Idaho U.S. Rep. Mike Simspon said he was “pleased as punch” on Monday.
Sporting shorts, a black cowboy hat and hiking shoes, Simpson got off the beaten path to celebrate a new path.
He joined Stanley Mayor Steve Botti and U.S. Forest Service officials to cut the ribbon on construction of a new outdoor recreation amenity — a 4.5-mile trail connecting two popular central Idaho destinations, the city of Stanley and Redfish Lake.
The un-paved trail will be open to pedestrians, cyclists and equestrians. It is closed to motorized vehicles, except during the winter when it is open to snowmobilers.
The trail is important to Simpson because it is part of a plan he brokered to get the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness passed by Congress.
Simpson spent a decade putting together a wilderness bill that satisfied all sides — ranchers, recreationists, environmentalists and local residents.
In addition to preserving 275,665 acres of wilderness, the plan includes more than $5 million in grants for Custer County and its communities for a community center, a county health clinic and other improvements.
Also included in the deal is more than $1.5 million for trail maintenance and construction in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, including a trail between Redfish Lake and Stanley.
When then-President Barack Obama signed the bill into law in August 2015, local and federal officials got to work implementing it.
The Stanley-to-Redfish trail is the last major item remaining on the Boulder-White Clouds to-do list.
“It is important to get (the trail) done because it is part of the Boulder-White Clouds bill that we did,” Simpson said Tuesday. “One thing we are going to do is complete all of the promises we made in this bill.”
Simpson added, “I am pleased as punch to be moving forward on it.”
Legal challenge from private ranch owner
The much-anticipated trail hit a bump in April when the owner of a private ranch through which the trail passes filed a federal lawsuit to stop the project.
David Boren, founder and board member of Boise-based Clearwater Analytics, bought the 1,781-acre Sawtooth Mountain Ranch in fall 2016.
A lot had transpired, though, before Boren bought the ranch:
In 2005, the U.S. Forest Service purchased a 30-foot wide, 1.5-mile easement from Sawtooth Mountain Ranch, located on the west side of Idaho 75 south of Stanley. The easement is for a “public trail” between Redfish and Stanley to be used for “snowmobile, snow grooming equipment, bicycle, horse, and foot travel,” according to court documents.
In 2014, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area announced its intent to construct a trail connecting Stanley and Redfish Lake. About 1.5 miles of the trail would be located within the U.S. Forest Service’s easement on Sawtooth Mountain Ranch.
In 2015, Simpson introduced, and Congress passed, the Boulder-White Clouds legislation which included a provision calling for the U.S. Forest Service to build a public trail from Stanley to Redfish Lake.
In a complaint filed April 9, 2019, in Boise federal court, Sawtooth Mountain Ranch claims the path strays outside the easement and the project needs more environmental reviews.
Boren acknowledges in the complaint he was aware of the easement when he purchased the ranch, but was not aware of the Forest Service’s plan to move forward with the trail.
In May, Sawtooth Mountain Ranch filed for a preliminary injunction to halt construction of the trail.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale on June 13, denied the injunction request and ruled the U.S. Forest Service can move ahead with project.
In her order, Dale wrote that ranch had “not demonstrated that they are likely to succeed on the merits ... Further, the balance of hardships does not tip decidedly in favor of plaintiffs.”
Sawtooth Mountain Ranch on Aug. 8 filed a new complaint asking the court to “quiet title,” or remove, the easement. The complaint also alleges the public trail project violates the Sawtooth National Recreation Area Act and U.S. Forest Service regulations.
The U.S. Forest Service has 60 days to respond to the latest complaint.
Simpson said on Tuesday trail construction is “going to start right away.”
Per the judge’s ruling in June, work can begin on the entire trail, including the portion that goes through Sawtooth Mountain Ranch.
“It is going to get done,” Simpson said. “We hope that by next summer we will be up there riding the trail.”