March 15, 2006 in Idaho

Wilderness proposal gets county support

By The Spokesman-Review

Momentum appears to be building for North Idaho’s first federally designated wilderness area in the Scotchman Peaks east of Sandpoint.

Buried in a letter sent to the Idaho governor earlier this year was an unprecedented two-sentence statement from the Bonner County commission expressing support for the idea. “Its steep slopes, remote valleys, grizzly bear habitat and possession of the highest point in Bonner County all support its inclusion as wilderness,” stated the letter signed by the county’s three Republican commissioners.

A grass-roots group of hikers, hunters and wildlife advocates has been working for 30 years to persuade the U.S. Congress to extend the nation’s highest level of protection to the mountainous area that straddles the Montana-Idaho border near the northeast shore of Lake Pend Oreille. But without the support of local government, action by Congress is virtually unheard of, said Phil Hough, chairman of Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness.

The statement of support was in a letter to the governor regarding management of the county’s roadless national forest. The commissioners asked the governor to maintain status quo protection for the roadless forest, but added it would support wilderness designation for the Scotchmans.

“Needless to say we were pretty excited,” Hough said. “They could have not said anything. But they took the opportunity to put themselves on record.”

The area has already been classified as recommended wilderness by the U.S. Forest Service, but the final say is up to Congress. Wilderness designation essentially prohibits all development and commercial timber harvests from the area. Machinery, including chainsaws, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, are barred from wilderness.

Although wilderness has become a flashpoint between motorized and nonmotorized enthusiasts, backers of protection for Scotchman Peaks say the point is moot. The national forest encompassing the Scotchmans is already being managed as wilderness and most of the terrain in Idaho is inaccessible to all but the most sure-footed hikers and horses.

Sandpoint Mayor Ray Miller said the region’s booming growth makes it even more important to set aside space for solitude. “It’s an area that needs to be preserved and protected. As you look at the amount of unprecedented growth, it’s becoming more and more important to preserve what Idaho used to be.”

Wilderness backers will now turn their focus to the Montana side of the border, which is home to about two-thirds of the 88,000 acres of potential wilderness. Cesar Hernandez, who has been pushing for wilderness designation for the area since 1974, said nearly all the elected representatives in Montana’s Sanders County support the idea. But stiff resistance remains in Lincoln County, the second county in Montana with land included in the proposal.

Wilderness backers in Montana are also fighting what they say is a new bureaucratic roadblock to their cause. In October, the supervisor of the Kootenai National Forest switched the management designation for the area from recommended wilderness to a new category of “wild lands.” Forest Service officials say the two areas are treated exactly the same, but critics point out the name no longer shows agency support for the ultimate protection by Congress.

Hernandez called the name change a “boneheaded” decision by Forest Supervisor Bob Castaneda. “He plucked this one out of thin air.” The management plan won’t be released for public comment until spring.

Such decisions reinforce the need for lasting protection by Congress for the Scotchman Peaks, Hernandez said. “We’ve seen how the Forest Service has whipsawed from administration to administration,” he said.

Idaho Panhandle National Forests spokesman Dave O’Brien said the area will remain designated as recommended wilderness in Idaho in the forthcoming forest management plan. During recent meetings on revising the forest plan, the idea of a wilderness area in the Scotchman Peaks received widespread public support, including from residents of Spokane and the Spokane Mountaineers club, he said.

“They’ve strongly supported it. It’s not just locals,” O’Brien said.

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