Wilderness supporters keep hope alive
The prospects for new wilderness in Idaho and Washington appear to be fading on the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
A proposal to designate the Wild Sky Wilderness in the Cascade Range northeast of Seattle withered Wednesday in Congress.
On the same day, the Sierra Club and 26 other conservation groups pulled support for the proposed Hemingway Wilderness near Idaho’s Sun Valley. A growing number of off-road vehicle recreationists are also opposing the 300,000-acre proposal.
The prospects are also looking bleak – at least for this year – for legislative action on wilderness designation for the Owyhee canyonlands of Southern Idaho.
Yet even if some proposals are going down in flames, a few Inland Northwest conservationists reserve hope for new wilderness in the area. Two tracts most commonly mentioned are Long Canyon in Boundary County, Idaho, and a portion of the Lewis and Clark Trail in north-central Idaho. North Idaho currently has no designated wilderness.
“It seems to me like it’s time to step forward,” said Jerry Pavia, a longtime proponent of creating a 50,000-acre wilderness at Long Canyon.
“That’s a top priority. It’s the gem of North Idaho. There’s no finer area.”
Modern machinery, including motorized vehicles, mountain bikes and chain saws are prohibited in designated wilderness areas, which are defined in the 1964 Wilderness Act as lands “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
The booming popularity of all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles that can reach far into the backcountry is adding a sense of urgency for setting aside some wilderness in North Idaho, said Pavia, the former chairman of the Idaho Conservation League.
Pavia’s optimism for creating a Long Canyon Wilderness had been raised this year by the bipartisan effort surrounding the Hemingway Wilderness proposal, which has been shepherded by Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican.
“If it can be proven down there that it can happen, we would hope they would want to look up here in the Panhandle,” Pavia said.
The fate of the Hemingway Wilderness is anything but certain. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Resources Committee and a longtime opponent of wilderness legislation, wants “near universal” support for any proposed wilderness before his committee will consider the bill, said Lindsay Nothern, press secretary for U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
Pombo withdrew support for Washington’s Wild Sky Wilderness bill because of partisan bickering over the amount of acres to be included in the area.
Crapo is seeking to build consensus for the 500,000-acre Owyhee wilderness proposal by working with county commissioners, cattle ranchers and environmentalists, Nothern said. Prospects are still “very good” for the Owyhee wilderness, but Congress is expected to adjourn soon and the bill might not face a vote until next year, Nothern said.
Congressional support for new wilderness in North Idaho would need broad community support, Nothern said.
“If there’s a local idea and folks are behind it, we’re willing to take a look,” he said, adding that consensus is increasingly hard to find anywhere in Idaho. “There’s so much contentiousness right now.”
Everybody’s a critic
Although the Hemingway Wilderness was being eyed as a potential model for new wilderness in Idaho, critics on both sides are increasingly vocal in their opposition.
Some conservation groups are calling it a Frankenstein wilderness for its patchwork of concessions – including an all-terrain vehicle trail. On the other side, access advocates say too much land would be off-limits to mountain bikes, off-road vehicles and even helicopter skiing.
“We just don’t see the need,” said Brian Hawthorne, public lands director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, an Idaho-based group that defends motorized access to public land nationwide.
“It’s already being protected. It’s being managed relatively well.”
Certain areas of Idaho are suitable for wilderness designation, Hawthorne said. But the process of creating new wilderness is not worth the effort.
All it takes is one environmental group’s lawsuit to shatter a broad coalition, Hawthorne said. “We can spend years wrangling a compromise, yet all will be for naught when it gets taken before a federal judge.”
The Idaho Panhandle National Forests has four areas recommended for wilderness in its current forest management plan, which was written in 1987.
The roadless tracts include Scotchman Peak, Mallard-Larkin, Selkirk Crest and lands bordering Washington’s Salmo-Priest Wilderness. The areas are not formally recognized as wilderness, but the U.S. Forest Service attempts to preserve their wilderness characteristics by prohibiting new road construction, logging and most access by motorized vehicles.
The Idaho Panhandle National Forests’ management plan is being updated. Meetings have been held across North Idaho this year to help draft a new plan. Wilderness was foremost on the minds of many participants in the discussion, Forest Service spokesman Dave O’Brien said. “The wilderness word is a polarizing word.”
No decisions have yet been made on management changes for North Idaho’s informal wilderness areas, O’Brien said. “Public input is absolutely something the forest supervisor is going to consider. Both sides have really weighed in.”
John Finney, a member of the BlueRibbon Coalition and the Sandpoint Winter Riders snowmobile club, participated in the forest plan meetings and summarized the wilderness discussions this way: “There was consensus in two camps: those who want the wilderness and those who don’t.” Finney does not.
Julien Bucher staked his rhetorical tent in a third camp, away from the fracas. He owns land at the mouth of Long Canyon and supports keeping the canyon protected from any development or commercial timber harvest, but he thinks formal wilderness designation spells trouble.
“It becomes a cause celebre,” Bucher said. “The greens just love to bleat, ‘It’s the last unroaded drainage.’ I’ve even done some of that myself on national television, which of course raises the hackles of local loggers. … I wish they would just leave it alone.”
‘We will proceed on’
The Sierra Club hopes the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition will build broad support for protecting 270,000 acres of forest along the explorers’ route through north-central Idaho.
The acreage includes the wildest remaining sections of the trail between President Jefferson’s home at Monticello and the expedition’s Pacific coast destination, said Dr. John Osborn, a Spokane environmentalist and co-chairman of the Sierra Club’s Wild America Campaign.
“It’s an area of tremendous importance for the history of the United States and the history of the Nez Perce Tribe,” Osborn said.
“Does the bicentennial come to eulogize what’s been lost or do we use this moment in time to step forward and try to protect what’s left? Ultimately, the Congress will have to answer that.”
The group has not yet made a formal request for a Lewis and Clark Wilderness. Osborn admitted that prospects for new wilderness seem slim, but he expects many people will support the notion of ensuring that one small segment of a cross-country route might still be recognized by the explorers 200 years later.
“When you read the journals, the most oft-repeated phrase is ‘We proceeded on,’ ” Osborn said.
“Most people understand that protecting the environment in this political climate is very difficult. Nonetheless we will proceed on.”