STANLEY • With President Barack Obama’s signature last month, 296,000 acres in Custer and northern Blaine counties received federal wilderness protection.
One of the largest roadless areas in the country, the protected acres cover breathtaking mountains and alpine lakes, and fish and wildlife habitat including the world’s highest-elevation salmon runs.
But what does the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act mean for people who live in this remote area of Idaho?
The city of Stanley is getting land to help address its perennial shortage of housing for seasonal workers. Custer County commissioners, meanwhile, want to erect a toll gate on one of the main wilderness access roads in hopes of making out-of-towners share the maintenance costs. And while the bill had wide support, mountain bikers feel left out because the 1964 Wilderness Act’s prohibition on mechanized vehicles means they are shut out of some formerly popular trails.
U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has worked on protecting the Boulder Mountains and White Cloud Mountains for almost his entire term in Congress only to see previous attempts stall. This year he hammered out a version that left some motorized trails out of the wilderness area. It won the support of U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, who went from killing the previous iteration to carrying the bill in the Senate.
With the possibility of a presidential declaration of a national monument if the bill didn’t pass — an alternative that would have protected about twice as much land but, some opponents feared, might have led to a use plan developed without local input — Simpson’s bill sailed through Congress without opposition and was signed into law in early August.
“I don’t know if you could call it (my) legacy,” Simpson told the Times-News editorial board the day after his bill cleared the Senate. “I’m protecting the Boulder-White Clouds is what it is. It’s obviously a very important bill to me, and I think it’s a very important bill to Idaho.”
For Simpson and for environmental groups such as the Idaho Conservation League, the bill’s passage was reason to celebrate.
“It’s taken us 15 years to get the broad support that we got on this,” Simpson said.
The ICL has worked to protect the Boulder-White Clouds since the group was founded in 1973 — just a year after a battle to block a proposed molybdenum mine on Castle Peak led to the creation of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
“That was definitely an issue that the original founders were involved in,” said Dani Mazzotta, who works in the ICL’s Ketchum office.
After Simpson’s bill passed the Senate in August, Mazzotta said, someone texted her a picture of a full-page ad in the Idaho Statesman exactly 40 years before, urging protection for the Boulder-White Clouds.
“It was just kind of neat to see the long history,” she said.
The ICL continued to work on the issue with successive Idaho congressmen and senators, including Simpson. With Simpson’s efforts seemingly stalled a few years ago, the ICL and other environmental and outdoors groups joined the national monument push.
“ICL’s goal has always been enduring protection for the Boulder-White Clouds in whatever way could get the job done,” Executive Director Rick Johnson said in a statement after Simpson’s bill passed the Senate. “We congratulate the delegation on this achievement and thank thousands of supporters who’ve been steadfast in their advocacy for this very special place.”
Now that the area is wilderness, the U.S. Forest Service will come up with a new management plan for it. And time will tell what, if any, impact the act will have on local residents’ lives and the economy of the remote and mountainous area.
What Wilderness Means
The act created three new wilderness areas: the 88,000-acre Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness, which starts north of Ketchum; the 91,000-acre White Clouds Wilderness, north of the Hemingway-Boulders; and the 117,000-acre Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness, east of the White Clouds.
They’re about as quintessentially wilderness as you can find, said Gary O’Malley, executive director of the Sawtooth Society.
“Congressman Simpson has been an unbelievable leader on this issue throughout the last decade,” O’Malley said. “We never lost hope that these areas would fall under true wilderness protection.”
The protected area includes the watershed of the Salmon River and important wildlife habitat — including for wolverines, which need large expanses — said Liese Dean, a wilderness program coordinator with the U.S. Forest Service. She said she hopes the conversation will be about the value of the protected area, rather than particular uses.
The boundaries of the Hemingway-Boulders and White Clouds wildernesses were changed more extensively to leave some trails open for multiple use, but Mazzotta said she is particularly happy with the final boundary of the Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness. Named after the late McClure, who pushed protection for the area when he was a U.S. senator, that wilderness includes much of the key fish and wildlife habitat, Mazzotta said.
“Mike Simpson, he couldn’t have gotten better with the boundaries on it,” she said.
Wilderness means that no permanent structures can be built and no mechanized use is allowed; the Forest Service doesn’t even use chain saws for trail maintenance, preferring plows, horses and other more primitive techniques. Dean said wilderness has a subtly different feel — more of a challenge, more opportunity for adventure — and visitors need to do their research before setting out.
“You’re not as likely to have things handed to you,” she said during an interview at the Fourth of July Trailhead. This trailhead is not in the wilderness but is used to access some of it, including the Antz Basin and Castle Divide trails which used to be popular with mountain bikers.
Livestock grazing is still allowed in areas where it was practiced before, but the act contains provisions whereby conservation groups can pay permit holders to retire their allotments voluntarily and permanently, which Mazzotta said would help to protect the Salmon River watershed and fish. Four grazing allotments are partially within the new wilderness areas; ranchers who are nearby, but not in the wilderness, can also take the buyouts.
Pre-existing structures are generally supposed to be removed, and roads are closed.
None of this will cause much practical change in the new wilderness areas, which were largely managed as “de facto wilderness” anyway, as Stanley City Council President Steve Botti put it. In fact, 155,000 acres of “wilderness study areas” will be released back to multiple use as a result of the act.
Simpson “wasn’t expanding that footprint of wilderness substantially,” Botti said.
Some old mining structures within the area are being evaluated and might be preserved for historic reasons, Dean said. There were some short portions of decommissioned roads in the White Clouds, but none that were open or accessible to vehicles at the time of the designation.
The Forest Service has three years to finish the new management plan. Carol Brown, environmental coordinator with the Sawtooth National Forest, said that work will start in earnest after fire season is over. Public comment will be solicited and hearings held as part of the process.
The federal Bureau of Land Management will also revise management plans for the wilderness study areas that are being released. Mazzotta said the ICL wants to have some input on that.
“I would argue that some of those lands have some very strong conservation values,” she said.
About 15 percent of the new wilderness is in Blaine County, one of the few Democratic counties in Idaho. Blaine’s local officials were generally more full-throated in favoring increased protection, including the idea of a national monument.
The rest is in staunchly Republican Custer County, where mining and ranching make up a big portion of the economy and where people were generally more skeptical about increased protections and strongly opposed to the monument proposal in particular.
The Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness stretches to a little south of Stanley, a shrinking city of just 60 or so permanent residents that makes its bread for the year during the busy season of July and August. The 2010 Census said 63 people lived there, down from 100 a decade before.
“It’s tough to make a living here,” Mayor Herb Mumford said. “Hardy souls.”
The city has a frozen-in-time look, with Western-style log buildings and plank sidewalks in some parts of downtown. The two state roads that lead through town are paved, but local streets are gravel. Stanley is surrounded by the Sawtooth Mountains’ jagged peaks, which bring tourists but also mean that, locked in by wilderness and scenic easements, the city can’t have other types of development.
“Mainly, we depend on tourism, and tourism is very seasonal,” Mumford said.
A 2013 study commissioned by the Idaho Outdoors Business Council, using the national monument scenario, predicted a visitation increase of 10 percent to 33 percent, which would result in an estimated 47 to 155 new jobs. However, local officials don’t expect such an increase in visitation. Botti said the Sawtooth Mountains are already well known and popular with people in the region. Something with roads or infrastructure might have led to more visitors, he said, but this isn’t that.
“Wilderness is pretty restrictive,” Botti said. “Unless you want to walk or ride a horse, you can’t really get in there.”
Mumford doesn’t expect a change either. The 296,000 acres of new wilderness, he said, is small compared with the Frank Church and Sawtooth wildernesses that already draw visitors.
“Frankly, I think it’ll stay about the same,” he said. “We do have a tremendous amount of wilderness surrounding us now.”
Jacob Greenberg, chairman of the Blaine County Board of Commissioners, doesn’t expect much change in visitation numbers either but said that wasn’t the point of the bill.
“It was more for the purpose of protection than economic benefit,” he said.
Greenberg hopes the federal government will enforce mechanized-use restrictions in the new wilderness areas. These restrictions weren’t enforced in the previous wilderness study areas, he said.
The deal will also help to address one of Stanley’s pressing problems; the city will get four acres near the Stanley Museum on which to build worker housing. The businesses that cater to Stanley’s tourists hire extra people during the busy summer season, but housing them has been a challenge.
Some of the seasonal workers — often college students — find housing with friends, and some employers provide housing, Mumford said. Some workers jump from room to room. Others have tried camping out their whole time in town, but they have to move every couple of weeks to comply with Forest Service regulations.
“All kinds of strange and inventive solutions have been used, but they’re not necessarily a pretty picture,” Mumford said.
Housing has also been an issue when trying to hire city employees, Mumford said.
City officials still need to study exactly what to build and figure out who’s going to build it, Botti said, but they are considering both apartments and dormitory-style accommodations.
Wayne Butts, chairman of the Custer County Board of Commissioners, was opposed to creating wilderness areas in the first place, viewing them as playgrounds for the rich that only end up costing local communities.
“Nobody wanted wilderness,” he said. “We’ve always made that clear forever.”
Butts said the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, which covers almost 2.4 million acres in Custer and three other counties, was “shoved down our throats” and doesn’t do any good for people who can’t afford to float the Salmon River or who, like him, have physical trouble walking long distances.
“It is literally a playground for the wealthy and does not benefit all of the normal people out here,” he said.
Butts said backpackers who travel to Custer County typically don’t spend much in the county, packing their supplies before they set out. And he worries the wilderness area will lead to more rescue calls in a county that has only a sheriff and six deputies patrolling an area almost the size of Connecticut and not enough emergency medical technicians to handle an increase. Challis has only 11 EMTs, for example — all volunteers, including Butts — and he said they have enough trouble taking care of county residents.
Now, county commissioners are looking into how to put up a toll gate on East Fork Road — the main road used to access much of the wilderness — which Butts said is in rough shape. The commissioners want to charge anyone who isn’t a local.
“If the greenies don’t like it, we don’t care,” Butts said.
Under Idaho code, counties can establish toll roads, although Idaho Transportation Department spokesman Nathan Jerke said that, as far as he is aware, there aren’t any in the state. However, Boise County is considering putting a toll on Banks-Lowman Road to help pay to fix an ongoing problem with mudslides and falling rocks.
Bikers, Environmentalists at Odds
Much of the Hemingway-Boulders and White Clouds wilderness boundary follows trails that were explicitly left out of the wilderness areas so snowmobiles, ATVs and motorcycles could continue to use them.
However, one group continued to actively oppose Simpson’s bill: mountain bikers. At least two dozen trails were closed to bikers as a result of the act, said Brett Stevenson of the Wood River Bike Coalition, and the Antz Basin and Castle Divide trails they’re now excluded from offered a rare high-alpine mountain biking experience.
“They’re incredible,” she said. “They’re like no other trails in the region.”
In early September, a map at the counter at Sturtos, a mountain bike shop in Hailey, was marked up to show which trails are no longer open to cyclists. And at Sturtevants in Ketchum, employees said they used to do a brisk business shuttling people to the Fourth of July Trailhead for those rides. People would book the trip months in advance, they said, and there was a rush of bikers earlier this year due to the imminent wilderness designation.
Stevenson and others active in the mountain biking community supported the monument alternative. For mountain bikers, the ambiguity around the use regulations in a national monument — the frightening factor that pushed some people to back, or at least not oppose, Simpson’s bill rather than face that possibility — could have been a benefit, if the regulations were written to allow mountain biking on their favorite trails.
Simpson told the Times-News editorial board in August that the wilderness bill wouldn’t have worked if the area around Castle Divide and Antz Basin were left out.
“There was just no way we could satisfy their concerns,” he said. “Their complaint is not with this wilderness bill specifically. It’s with the Wilderness Act that says no mechanized vehicles in wilderness areas, which means bikes.”
Stevenson said biking is a low-impact activity; bikers don’t leave garbage, stay overnight or damage the trails, and it’s a self-limiting pursuit because the rides in question were so strenuous. The way she sees it, motorized users had political leverage that the mountain bikers lacked.
“Simpson could get it through without us, and he did,” she said.
She said the Boulder-White Clouds debate led to a rift between conservationists and mountain bikers, who are often on the same page in other environmental debates. And she was disappointed that the protected area was smaller than it had been under the monument proposal.
“The conservation gain should have been much greater,” she said. “And more recreation could have been included. Human-powered, low-impact recreation.”
Johnson said the bill could have been stronger from the ICL’s point of view, and a national monument would have protected more land.
“However, we understand that legislation requires compromise,” he said. “The conservation community had to give some, and so did other stakeholders. At the end of the day, we are pleased that one of Idaho’s most pristine wildernesses gets the lasting protection it deserves.”
By late August, the Forest Service had finished posting signs and maps letting people know the wilderness boundaries, Brown said. She said the Forest Service has been trying to get the word out about the designation and new rules via the media.
“Any willful or knowing violation would be dealt with from an enforcement point of view,” Brown said.
Dean said the Forest Service has been turning bikers around at the wilderness boundary. While there are people violating it intentionally, she said, most have been compliant and respectful. She said the Forest Service is emphasizing education before enforcement for now.