By Brian Smith
For decades, conservationists have lobbied for additional protections for the Boulder-White Clouds Mountains. It’s a scenic area they say offers unparalleled recreation and world-class hunting and fishing but is under threat of harmful development and mining.
Groups have lobbied for portions of the landscape to be set aside as wilderness to prevent more roads, logging, mining and use of motorized and mechanized transportation. Creating wilderness, however, takes an act of Congress, which hasn’t paid much attention to the matter.
Now several groups have joined to lobby the Obama administration to establish a 571,276-acre Boulder-White Clouds National Monument. Their actions have renewed a statewide conversation about the area and the future of its management.
The Boulder-White Clouds area is a high alpine landscape home to big game habitat, the headwaters of four major rivers and more than 150 lakes higher than 10,000 feet in elevation. The proposed monument would cover most of the East Fork of the Salmon River watershed.
The proposed monument is north of Sun Valley and east of Stanley. Roughly, the proposal encompasses land east of Idaho 75, north of Trail Creek Road and west of U.S. 93.
The land is under a smattering of management: 279,277 acres of Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) managed by the Forst Service, 158,399 acres of other Forest Service land, 133,600 acres of Bureau of Land Management land, and state and private areas.
There are several roads into the monument, including Fourth of July Creek Road, Spar Canyon Road and the longest, the East Fork Road.
According to the Forest Service, its portion has 329,636 acres of Inventoried Roadless Area plus 91.4 miles of motorized and non-motorized trails. The agency also has 210,512 acres comprising seven grazing allotments in the SNRA and Ketchum Ranger District.
The BLM’s portion has several ATV, single-track and non-motorized paths. Roads range from primitive to improved, and some are open only seasonally. Also in the BLM area are four partial or whole wilderness study areas, 13 grazing allotments and a section of wild horse range.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 grants the President authority to designate national monuments in order to protect “objects of historic or scientific interest.” But the act has been used for broader purposes, including general conservation, recreation, scenic protection or protection of living organisms.
While the President has established most monuments, Congress has established several monuments aimed at protecting natural or historic features.
The Antiquities Act has been used to protect land in a variety of sizes. About half involve fewer than 5,000 acres; they have ranged from less than 1 acre to about 89 million acres.
Critics say the act was never meant for such actions, that it was to “protect specific items of interest, especially archaeological sites and the small areas surrounding them,” according to a Congressional Research Service investigation.
Courts have deferred to the president’s judgment as to the proper size for a monument, the CRS reported.
More than 100 national monuments have been created. They can be managed by a number of agencies, including the National Park Service, Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or BLM. However, monuments don’t always stay monuments. About half of the national parks were first declared monuments, the CRS reported.
There are three national monuments in Idaho.
The monument closest to the Boulder-White Clouds is the 750,000-acre Craters of the Moon National Monument managed by the National Park Service and the BLM.
Other areas with federal protection include the Nez Perce National Historic Preserve, City of Rocks National Reserve and three national historic trails: Oregon, Lewis and Clark and the California trails.
Idaho also has 12 wilderness areas covering 4.5 million acres, making it third in the nation for total wilderness acres.
Designated wilderness is closed to logging, roads and motorized or mechanized transportation under the Wilderness Act of 1964.
In a November 2011 document, the BLM recommended the Boulder-White Clouds area as part of its “Preliminary Report on BLM Lands Deserving Protection as National Conservation Areas, Wilderness or Other Conservation Designations.”
In the late 1960s, miners planned to dig an open-pit molybdenum mine at the base of Castle Peak, an often photographed peak in the Boulder Mountains. The proposal ignited a heated conversation about how to protect the area. Some lawmakers initially proposed a national park.
Congress created the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in 1972 to protect the area from “intense or inappropriate development,” the Sawtooth Society reports. It is now managed to restrict development while respecting private property rights and allowing for varied uses of the land. Also created was the 217,000-acre Sawtooth Wilderness Area west of the SNRA.
The public and private 756,000 acres of the SNRA contain many popular hiking, mountain biking, skiing and snowmobiling trails and recreation areas on both sides of Idaho 75 near Stanley.
According to the Sawtooth Society, the SNRA is about the size of Rhode Island and contains “50 snowcapped peaks exceeding 10,000 feet, 500 alpine lakes, lush meadows, countless species of wildlife, and treasures from our pioneer heritage.”
The Sawtooth Society has funded a number of maintenance projects to benefit the SNRA and secured $17 million in conservation easements.
Eastern parts of the SNRA are contained in the Boulder-White Clouds National Monument proposal, an area many conservationists wanted designated wilderness in the early 1970s.
Conservationists hoping to add another layer of protection to the Boulder-White Clouds area have long placed their hopes on the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA), a bill created by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, in 2004.
Simpson’s bill would balance the creation of 332,775 acres of wilderness with rules for all recreation types, allocate federal grants for Custer County and fund recreation support projects.
CIEDRA would create three new wilderness areas in Idaho — the 110,370-acre Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness, the 90,888-acre White Clouds Wilderness and the 131,670-acre Jerry Peak Wilderness.
After introducing the bill in six consecutive sessions of Congress, the Idaho Conservation League kicked off the national monument push. ICL centers its new lobbying efforts on a combination of alleged increasing threats on the land mixed with Congressional stalemate.
The Idaho Conservation League and The Wilderness Society have steered the charge to create a Boulder-White Clouds National Monument since the summer of 2013.
In promotional material, they describe the land as “pristine,” roadless and one of the largest “unprotected” pieces of land in the Lower 48.
“The area contains significant ecological and wilderness values and is home to a rich variety of wildlife species such as bighorn sheep and the elusive wolverine, as well as rare plants found nowhere else on earth. The region provides world-class recreation opportunities for sportsmen, mountain bikers, skiers, and hikers,” the ICL writes.
ICL says the land would benefit from the comprehensive management plan the monument process provides.
“Such a plan can create certainty for reasonable motorized access and mountain biking, certainty for a wild backcountry that supports our cherished traditions, and certainty for an economic engine that draws in visitors. If we want to pass on an Idaho way of life to future generations, we need a custom tailored plan to keep things the way we like them.”
ICL also says it wants to protect the land from mining interests. More than half of the proposed monument is within the SNRA, which already prohibits mining.
The ICL also created this list as a comparative management document.
The ICL and other groups have traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby federal decision makers about creating a Boulder-White Clouds National Monument.
President Barack Obama could ink the monument at any moment, but those close to the situation say such a decision wouldn’t be made without a visit from federal officials to inspect local planning processes and to hear concerns and support for the idea.
The initial monument proclamation spells out which values, objects and principles the area should be managed to protect. From that proclamation, a management plan is created over several years through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.
The NEPA process allows the public to wrestle over management polices for things such as recreation use, travel management, livestock grazing and fire management.
The ICL and Wilderness Society have asked for a monument managed jointly by the BLM and Forest Service.
Whether the area is worthy of the national monument pedestal depends on whom you ask. But most agree that the devil is in the details.
Who of the existing hikers, mountain bikers, skiers, snowmobilers, horseback riders, dirt bike riders, off-road vehicle users and others in the area may access the land under a monument remains to be seen.
Some see a monument as the middle ground between the current multiple-use management and the conservation of a wilderness designation. But because management plans are made after a monument is designated, user groups – especially motorized users – fear the uncertainty in that process.
Documents released by the ICL indicate a push for a monument managed for the protection of “wilderness characteristics” in certain areas, while allowing for human-powered recreation in others.
In late February 2014, mountain bikers reached an agreement with the ICL and Wilderness Society on certain trails they’d like to keep open in a potential monument. Whether the document has any influence on the management plan remains to be seen.
Discussions about motorized access, however, have been fewer – the ICL says it will relegate those discussions to the management plan process.
The Sawtooth Society, a group long devoted to protecting the SNRA half of the land inside the potential monument, is touting a more cautious approach. While members would like to see more safeguards for areas not designated wilderness, they – like many – worry about the uncertainty inherent in the monument process, Sawtooth Society President Paul Hill said.
Some hunters and anglers have joined to support the idea and formed “Sportsmen for Boulder-White Clouds.”
“To have a truly amazing area literally right here in our backyard is an absolute miracle. Nature’s natural beauty only exists at our preference. We can keep it or destroy it. In order to keep things the way we like them, it’s time for Idaho sportsmen and women who love the Boulder-White Clouds to step up and sight in on a National Monument,” wrote John Caywood and Jim Nunley of the group.
Officials from the two counties that would make up the bulk of the monument – Blaine County and Custer County – disagree on the idea.
Blaine County commissioners have approved a resolution of support, while the commissioners in Custer County unanimously oppose the idea. Commissioners in nearby Lemhi County also oppose it.
Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said the area deserves more protection and the commission supports a monument that allows for more flexibility in recreational opportunities than wilderness would.
Custer County Commissioner Wayne Butts said the idea would cost the county more than the estimated economic benefits, which he and others deem vague and unreliable.
The Stanley City Council has said only that it wants to be included in the process – it can’t support or oppose it without knowing what’s in the management plan. Other area cities, including Hailey, Ketchum, Challis and Salmon, have not yet taken a stance.
Letters to the editor of the Times-News indicate a mix of local and regional sentiment:
“The wilderness values we’ve sought to protect legislatively are paramount to ICL. A monument designation can better protect those values by giving current land managers across multiple jurisdictions clearer direction.” – ICL Executive Director Rick Johnson, on July 14, 2013.
“The secretive and vague proclamations that create monuments exclude the public process that democracy demands. These typically swift proclamations can be a useful defense against existential threats, for instance when surface mining is nearing approval or other high-impact proposals are advancing. However, there is no new, imminent, credible threat to the Boulder-White Clouds.” – Hailey resident Greg Travelstead, on July 26, 2013.
“We have an opportunity to recognize how important this place is for the future of our great-great-grandchildren; we dare not assume that the land will take care of itself.” – Riggins resident Evelynne Picket, on Oct. 10, 2013.
“More devastating than the SNRA will be a national monument, a monument dedicated to the selfish interest of those born with silver spoons. The national monument debate comes as its pending resource lockout will put Custer County on a continued course toward steadily harder economic times.” – Yankee Fork area resident Darr Moon, on Dec. 15, 2013.
“Unless you’re an out-of-state mining company, it is a no-brainer to support the designation of the Boulder-White Clouds a national monument. Why? Hunting and fishing access will remain the same, with enhanced protection for big game habitat.” – Sun Valley resident Steve Mitchell, on Feb. 2, 2014.
“Let us not be fooled by the vagaries of the Idaho Conservation League into thinking that more federal government over-reach into Idaho’s magnificent lands will solve some imagined threat to future generations.” – Eagle resident Phil Ackerman, on Feb. 10, 2014.
“A monument designation would be great for the economy of the Wood River Valley and other nearby communities. Our local tourism dollars depend on this scenic backdrop.” – Ketchum resident Elaine French, on Feb. 19, 2014.
“The Boulder-White Clouds are one of ‘the’ special places on the planet. A region of natural splendor rivaled by few. It screams out for protection. This is my scream to protect it, please.” – Boise resident Link Jackson, on March 16, 2014.