STANLEY, Idaho • As some state and national conservation groups push for a Boulder-White Clouds National Monument, a group long devoted to protecting half of that land is touting a more cautious approach.
The Sawtooth Society isn’t necessarily against creating a national monument on the 571,276-acre site north of Ketchum. But it isn’t steaming ahead in support either.
Since 1997, society members have protected the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) there. While they’d like to see more safeguards for areas not designated wilderness, they worry about the uncertainty inherent in the monument process, Sawtooth Society President Paul Hill said.
The rules, including who may access the land and how, are written years after the monument is created, so Idahoans can’t foretell the fate of the land.
While the president can create the monument, he can’t allocate money to support increased visitation.
In addition, the Sawtooth Society has sunk more than $600,000 into projects and programs for the SNRA and doesn’t want that effort undermined, Hill said.
What’s more, increased visitation would further burden already stressed local emergency responders, he said.
“We are not against it either,” he said. “Rather, we’d like to be a partner in a process to carefully develop something that hears the various views of people involved and does it in a way that doesn’t undermine the existing laws and addresses concerns such as those on funding and visitation.”
For decades, conservationists have tried to get the Boulder-White Clouds Mountains site set aside as wilderness to prevent more roads, logging, mining and use of motorized and mechanized transportation.
That takes an act of Congress, though. So now the Idaho Conservation League and others are lobbying the Obama administration to establish a national monument — seen as the middle ground between the current multiple-use management and the conservation of a wilderness designation.
The Sawtooth Society was left out of initial discussions by the Conservation League and The Wilderness Society, which wanted a “behind-closed-doors” process, Hill said.
“They were just going ahead and talking to people in Washington, and in fact they had very few local meetings to talk to people about what they had in mind.”
Rick Johnson, executive director of the Conservation League, said the organizations hadn’t worked closely together during past efforts to make the land into wilderness.
“When we started working on the monument effort, from their point of view, I guess I can see why they were concerned, but that was the nature of the beast,” Johnson said.
He did not dispute the initial behind-closed-doors allegation. Many thought the proposal would be “shoved down their throats,” he acknowledged.
The Sawtooth Society “gets why we are doing it, but they like the transparency of the legislative process better. This certainly could be a monument designation that could be very back door and not involve stakeholders … but that’s not what this is.
“We want something Idaho people can be proud of, and that means you’ve got to involve a lot of people,” Johnson said.
The Sawtooth Society is standing up for the 279,277 acres of the SNRA that is inside the proposed monument site, Hill said. It is not concerned with the remaining state, private, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management acres.
Society members are asking pointed questions about the process, funding and continuation of conservation work.
Those who will be affected need to have a say, Hill said.
“The best way to come up with something that’s good, that doesn’t mess up what’s already in place, is to get local input,” he said.
He said his group’s stance has slowed the proposal’s progress, and now it can capitalize on that by holding meetings in the Stanley Basin, Wood River Valley and Magic Valley this year to educate recreationists.
Sawtooth members hope to differentiate theirs from the other groups’ meetings.
Hill said he told the League and Wilderness Society that their meetings weren’t constructive, that “you are saying, ‘Here’s our proposal’ and you are trying to sell it to people. You are just giving them a chance to ask questions. But what you are not doing is giving them the opportunity to develop their own views and input and give it back to you.”
Not so, Johnson said. The proposal will be “an amalgam of what everyone is saying.” The League is listening to concerns, looking for broad support, and “the reason that our meetings are not full of detail is because we are not pitching something. We are not trying to pitch a bill of goods. What we are trying to demonstrate, though, is that this is an opportunity … because, in our view, Congress is not working.”
Hill said bringing in more visitors without a commensurate boost in federal funds could stress the SNRA’s “very limited recreational facilities.”
“We have medical, emergency and search and rescue-type services in Custer County and Stanley that are already stretched to the limit right now because of the current visitation.”
Johnson agreed that the cost of emergency services needs to be reviewed.
“We are very open to that regardless of if the monument happens,” he said. “ ... I think there’s an opportunity to come up with creative ways to support those kinds of services.”
But a spike in visitation is “really not certain,” Johnson said. The site “already is well-known and adjacent to a very popular resort community. Is it really going to get more people? Hard to say. If it does, is it going to be for just a little while, and then it’s not in the newspaper anymore and whatever?”
The SNRA “isn’t perfect, but it is pretty darn good,” Hill said. “It has been in place for 40 years. And as one of our former (society) presidents likes to say … the success of it is what you don’t see there, not what you see.”