In 1977, Doug Scott was hanged in effigy in central Idaho for his work to create the Gospel-Hump Wilderness. Burning beside him was a mannequin of the now-deceased Idaho senator, Frank Church.
Wilderness was a dirty word back then, said Scott, who has helped organize efforts behind the creation of “hundreds” of the nation’s 638 congressionally designated wilderness areas, including several in Idaho.
But times have mellowed, Scott said in an interview Thursday in Coeur d’Alene. He is here on a multi-city tour to promote the creation of a Scotchman Peaks wilderness, which would be the first wilderness area in North Idaho.
On Scott’s flight to Spokane from his home in Seattle, he flipped through an airline magazine and was amazed by the number of advertisements where wilderness is now being used as a selling point or scenic backdrop – tourism ads for Colorado and Idaho prominently display wilderness areas, he said. There was even an ad for a new real estate development near Sandpoint. The photo showed dark, undeveloped mountains towering above Lake Pend Oreille.
“Those are the Scotchmans,” Scott said, pointing at a copy of the ad. “Communities are starting to figure out that wilderness is darn good business.”
Scott, the policy director for the Campaign for America’s Wilderness, said a Scotchman Peaks wilderness is reaching the point of “near inevitability.” Political support is beginning to build, including recent endorsements from the all-Republican Bonner County commission.
The steep, jagged mountain range straddles the Montana-Idaho border east of Sandpoint and has long been designated as “recommended wilderness” by the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. But the portion of the mountain range in Montana recently lost its recommended wilderness status by the Kootenai National Forest. The change is not yet permanent, however. Local groups, including the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, have been working in recent months to build local support for action by Congress, which holds the keys to the creation of any new wilderness areas.
Although having the proposed wilderness in two states complicates things a bit, Scott said the Scotchmans would be a relatively “clean” wilderness to create. The area is steep enough to be virtually unreachable in most parts on snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, he said. Most of the debate would come to setting the specific boundaries, particularly in Lincoln County, Mont.
National politics has little to do with the creation of wilderness, Scott said. President Bush, he added, has been a supporter of most new wilderness areas. He has signed bills creating 10 new wilderness areas since taking office, including a 10,000-acre wilderness in Puerto Rico and the recent addition of a 275,000-acre wilderness in northern California, along the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the lower 48 states.
“They’ve tried to find reasons to be supportive of us, and not reluctantly, either,” Scott said of the Bush administration. “The fact that we’re still adding acres suggests it has a certain bedrock support with the American people.”
Speaking to a small crowd at North Idaho College on Thursday night, Scott said the U.S. now has 106,782,465 acres of designated wilderness, which accounts for 5 percent of the nation’s land mass. Nearly 8 percent of Idaho is wilderness. About 15 percent of Alaska and California carry the designation.
Apart from a handful of airfields and grazing permits, wilderness areas prohibit the use of motorized vehicles and commercial development. The act has been used to protect everything from 13 million-acre tracts in Alaska to a 3,700-acre swamp in New Jersey, just 26 miles from Times Square.
“It’s one of the four or five most significant conservation achievements in our history,” Scott said.
Many motorized sports advocates and the timber industry continue to oppose wilderness as putting harsh restrictions on how land may be used or managed. The idea of new wilderness remains highly unpopular in many rural Idaho communities, but Scott insisted this is changing.
He points to the state’s existing wilderness areas, including the Frank Church-River of No Return. The area was hugely controversial when it was set aside as wilderness in 1980, he said. Now it draws hunters, rafters, anglers and hikers from around the nation and world.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find too many people who’d say the Frank Church-River of No Return was a mistake,” Scott said.
He also noted that more and more politicians are latching on to the idea of wilderness as a way to leave a legacy. He spoke with Frank Church when the senator was on his deathbed, shortly after his name was added to the wilderness area.
“I know how deeply thrilled he was by that,” Scott said. “It meant more than all the post offices he helped build.”