Bonner County voters rejected a proposed 13,000-acre wilderness area in Tuesday’s election.
Although the vote may have sent a message to lawmakers – and served as a rallying cry for states’ rights champions – it won’t change how the forest is managed.
“Nothing is going to change,” said Shoshana Cooper, a spokeswoman for Idaho Panhandle National Forests.
What the vote did do was prompt Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, to not reintroduce legislation that would have created the wilderness area.
Voters rejected the plan, 5,672 to 4,831.
In an emailed statement, Risch said: “I will not reintroduce the Scotchman Peaks legislation. I thank those who have been involved in educating the community on the proposal, and I applaud the Bonner County Commissioners for bringing the proposal to me and allowing Idahoans to voice their opinion on this important issue.”
Risch introduced wilderness designation legislation in December 2016. In an April 11 opinion column published in the Sandpoint Reader, Risch said he’d abide by the advisory vote. He said when he introduced the legislation he believed there was widespread community support.
However, as far as forest management goes, the U.S. Forest Service will continue as it has. Since 2015 the agency has managed the land as a recommended wilderness area, per the 2015 Forest Plan Revision. Cooper said management won’t change until the Forest Service undertakes another Forest Plan Revision. That likely won’t happen again for 15 years. The Scotchman Peaks area has been managed as recommended wilderness since the implementation of the 1987 Land Management Plan.
“This area will remain as recommended wilderness in accordance with the direction of our land management plan until either congressional action is taken or until we revise the forest plan,” she said.
Congress can’t rescind the 2015 Forest Plan Revision. It can only vote on whether to designate the land as wilderness.
Recommended wilderness areas have some management restrictions that other areas don’t. However, Forest Service personnel and volunteer groups still can use chain saws to thin trees. In a designated wilderness chain saws are prohibited. Additionally, mineral leasing is possible in recommended wilderness areas. And, perhaps most importantly, Cooper said Forest Service personnel can and do manage forest fires in both recommended and designated wilderness areas.
“We still do manage wildfire,” she said.
Opponents of the wilderness area cited concerns about forest management as one of the primary reasons for opposing the designation.
“The philosophy with wilderness areas is let it burn,” said Bonner County Commissioner Dan McDonald. “We’re not seeing the positive impacts of wilderness area. What we’re really seeing are the negative impacts.”
In 2017, the Forest Service sent smokejumpers into the Salmo-Priest Wilderness area to fight a forest fire. They had chain saws but were forced to retreat when it became too dangerous, Cooper said.
“I’m happy with the results. I was impressed by the number of people that came out,” McDonald said.
He believes Commissioner Glen Bailey lost in Tuesday’s primary partly because of his support of the wilderness designation.
McDonald expects the commissioners to ask the Forest Service to stop managing the area as recommended wilderness.
Cooper said that won’t happen and pointed out that the 2015 Forest Plan Revision had “robust public involvement” that included people “in many towns and counties across the forest,” not just Bonner County.
Still, she said the agency is committed to working with Bonner County commissioners, the public and Friends of Scotchman Peaks.
McDonald believes changes are coming. He points to a new political reality and believes in President Trump’s administration and its influence on the Forest Service. The change might be slow, he said, but it will happen.
“We’re already seeing some positive change,” he said.
For proponents, the advisory vote is a bitter setback. For more than a decade, Friends of the Scotchman Peaks has built support in Idaho and Montana.
The area was first recommended for wilderness in 1970. The Forest Service designated the 88,000 acres in Idaho and Montana as a roadless area in 1979.
Phil Hough, executive director of Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, put a positive spin on the outcome, pointing out in an email that “the vote shows a large number of Bonner County primary voters value wilderness. The depth and breadth of this support shows that wilderness and conservation values are important to a significant number of people.”
Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness will continue to advocate for the peaks, he said.
Update: This story has been updated to clarify when the Scotchman Peaks wilderness area started being managed as recommended wilderness.