The political thunder over the proposed Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness is echoing loudly in North Idaho, where environmentalists seek the same level of federal protection for the Scotchman Peaks near Sandpoint.
Supporters of a Scotchman Peaks wilderness say if it can be done in central Idaho, it’s also possible in the Panhandle. The lack of support for the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness from gubernatorial front-runner Butch Otter doesn’t spell doom for the North Idaho effort, said Phil Hough, chairman of Friends of Scotchman Peaks.
“It would be nice to have the governor on your side, but they aren’t directly involved” in the creation of new wilderness, Hough said.
New wilderness areas are created by Congress, not governors. Because the issue is politically volatile, Hough said he was not surprised to see Otter oppose a new wilderness, even if it was a bill sponsored by his Republican colleague, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson.
“The whole thing played out almost exactly as I would have anticipated,” he said.
The Scotchman Peaks region straddles the Montana-Idaho border east of Sandpoint. The U.S. Forest Service manages about 88,000 acres in the area under the same rules that apply to wilderness – machinery and commercial logging are banned – but environmentalists have been working for about 25 years to convince Congress to extend permanent wilderness protection to the area.
Their efforts were boosted earlier this year when the three members of the Bonner County Commission, all Republicans, came out in support of such protection. In Montana, which is home to two-thirds of the proposed acreage, local political support remains mixed.
Several weeks ago, however, the Thompson Falls City Council expressed support for wilderness designation, Hough said. “Things are starting to line up.”
Much depends on the fall elections. Bill Sali, the Republican candidate for Idaho’s first congressional district, which includes the Scotchman Peaks, “is not presently convinced of the need to expand wilderness in Idaho,” according to a statement issued Monday by his campaign manager, Jesseca Sali.
But the candidate remains open to the idea. Sali “believes that every request should be weighed on its merits. The Idahoans involved in the process have worked hard and deserve a chance to be heard,” according to the statement.
Democratic congressional candidate Larry Grant has already offered his support to the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness. He recently sent a letter to fellow Democrats calling the wilderness “long overdue.”
Although wilderness supporters say political support is mounting for extending the nation’s highest level of protection to the Scotchman Peaks, the effort was dealt a setback in October when the supervisor of the Kootenai National Forest changed the management designation for the land in Montana from recommended wilderness to a newly created category known as wildlands.
The name change doesn’t alter how the land is managed – it’s essentially treated like wilderness – but environmentalists were outraged by the Forest Service dropping its official support for congressional wilderness designation. The area in Idaho remains listed as recommended wilderness in the forthcoming management plan for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.