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Sports >  Outdoors

Idaho’s highest point low on wilderness priority

Rich Landers Outdoors editor

In many cases, a state’s highest mountain is a wilderness no-brainer.

Weather and terrain hostile to development and resource extraction often creates wilderness by default in rugged mountain areas.

But the highest places in some states have stood above the crowd to win the highest form of federal protection. State-highest mountains protected from development within official wilderness areas include:

Mount McKinley in Alaska, Humphrey’s Peak in Arizona, Mount Whitney in California, Mount Katahdin in Maine, Granite Peak in Montana, Boundary Peak in Nevada, Wheeler Peak in New Mexico, Mount Hood in Oregon, Harney Peak in South Dakota, Guadalupe Peak in Texas, Kings Peak in Utah, Mount Rainier in Washington and Gannett Peak in Wyoming.

Notably absent from this list is Idaho’s highest point, Borah Peak, the highest summit on massive Mount Borah in Custer County.

The Lost River Range has nine of Idaho’s 11 peaks higher than 12,000 feet, plus scores of peaks topping 11,500 feet.

At the core of this 75-mile-long range of Idaho giants is a roadless area of about 150,000 acres. About 120,000 acres of the area was officially recommended for wilderness decades ago by the Forest Service.

“We treat it as wilderness in our management decisions, but it’s not official,” said Melissa Fowler, forest and recreation specialist for the Salmon-Challis National Forest.

The Lost River Range is distinguished by cliffs, rock folds, spires, huge peaks and vast vistas that are home for critters such as elk, bighorns, pronghorns, and cougars.

In 1983, the fault at the base of Mount Borah produced staggering earthquake registering 7.3 in the Richter scale. A 20-mile-long fault scarp from the quake is still visible.

Idaho congressional delegations have generally shied from the controversy of establishing more wilderness. Currently, debate is contentious over access issues and land trades in the Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness proposal being negotiated by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.

The Boulder-White Clouds area and Borah Peak are both in Custer County, where elected officials are generally not in favor of wilderness for anything below tree line.

The semi-arid open terrain makes the area attractive to off-road vehicle enthusiasts, especially all-terrain vehicles.

Wilderness opponents say the area has potential for ATV trail systems and the tourism they would generate.

Wilderness advocates say the open terrain would tempt motorized users to stray from expanded trail systems and, with virtually no enforcement in the field, protected areas would be threatened.

This spring, during an Idaho Parks and Recreation Department hearing on a proposed 460-mile ATV trail in the region, Mackay rancher Keith Hill said he doubted the public agencies would be able to control illegal use that would sprout from expanded ATV trails systems.

According to the Idaho Mountain Express in Ketchum, Hill and other area landowners said they feared there would be heavy impacts on wildlife, especially elk, on the landscape and on the peace of the valley.

“When the ATVs are out there, you can spot every one of them from the dust clouds,” he said.

Forest Service officials say wilderness consideration for Mount Borah is anything but imminent.

“There’s a lot of attention on the wilderness proposal for the Boulder-White Cloud area, so Borah Peak isn’t in the spotlight right now,” said Gail Baer, Salmon-Challis forest spokeswoman in Salmon. “There’s a lot of conflict and controversy regarding ATVs and how they are managed in many of our areas right now.”

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