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White Clouds Wilderness

The night sky at the boundary of the White Clouds Wilderness near Sunbeam Dam on Sept. 1, 2015, east of Stanley.

STANLEY — It was two years ago that 296,000 acres in Custer and Blaine counties, one of the largest roadless areas in the country, got federal wilderness protections.

But a few users are still waiting to see how that designation will affect them. And the city of Stanley is still waiting for land it was promised to deal with its perennial housing shortage.

Commonly referred to as the Boulder-White Clouds, the protected area covers 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.

The wilderness designation came after years of negotiation over exactly how big the wilderness should be — trying to appease the concerns of local officials, conservationists, grazing permittees and recreationalists of all stripes.

Some walked away from the process satisfied; others didn’t. Mountain bikers, for example, were unhappy that some formerly popular trails were included in the wilderness area and are now closed to them, due to the federal ban on biking in such areas.

The U.S. Forest Service is working on wilderness management plans, wilderness planner Emily Simpson said. The Hemingway-Boulders and White Clouds will be part of one management area; Jim McClure-Jerry Peak is a separate one.

A draft plan was put out late last year, and the planners are reviewing the comments now, Simpson said. They hope to have the revised plan out for public comment in October. They hope to have it done by August 2018, in time for the three-year anniversary of the designation, which was the timeline laid out in the legislation creating the wilderness areas.

“Some of the main topics that will be of interest to recreationalists is proposed group-size limits for people and stock,” Simpson said.

Currently, there are no size limits on groups of people or recreational stock — pack animals such as horses, mules and llamas — in the McClure-Jerry Peak area, and limits are 20 people and 25 head of stock in the Hemingway-Boulders and White Clouds.

The three possibilities, Simpson said, are leaving these limits unchanged; reducing them to 12 people and 14 head of stock in the Hemingway-Boulders and White Clouds and 12 people and 20 head of stock in McClure-Jerry Peak; or going to limits even more restrictive. Planners are also considering prohibiting campfires in some areas and banning horses and mules entirely in some areas of the White Clouds.

Pack goats could also see further restrictions than other recreational stock, Simpson said, due to their potential to transmit disease to bighorn sheep. The options range from no restrictions to banning pack goats in areas where bighorn sheep range in the summer to banning pack goats in the entire wilderness area.

Most of these possible restrictions wouldn’t affect most people who hunt, camp or hike in the wilderness — it’s not every day someone wants to bring more than 20 llamas. But Simpson said it does happen, giving family reunions as a possible example. Part of the planning process will be combing through the data to see how many people could be affected by restrictions.

“Tentatively, it’s looking (like) very small numbers of groups are looking to exceed these proposed thresholds,” she said.

The wilderness designation has led to more visitors to Stanley, said Mayor Herb Mumford, but he said the impact was likely incremental, given how many people were visiting Stanley to recreate already.

“We (were) already a destination for tourism and the Frank Church wilderness and the Sawtooth wilderness and all the protected areas that we had here before,” he said. “The Boulder-White Clouds has just added more acreage. It’s another treasure that we added in our backyard, but we already had some very nice treasures in our backyard. ... It’s nothing that suddenly made a black-and-white change overnight and our tourism was doubled or anything like that, absolutely not.”

But something could make a big difference to the town.

Part of the wilderness deal was that Stanley would get four acres on which to build workforce housing. Stanley’s population swells during the summer, and people who come to work at the town’s businesses during the busy season often have trouble finding places to live. The Forest Service is still in the process of transferring that land to the city, Mumford said, and the city is looking at how to proceed with the architectural and planning process.

The workforce housing shortage hasn’t improved in the two years since the bill passed, Mumford said. Now, the burden often falls on business owners to provide housing on their properties or make other arrangements for their workers.

“I don’t expect it to get better until we can develop … housing to provide another option,” he said. “That’ll be really helpful.”

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