What does “wilderness” mean to you, as an outdoor adventurer? Who should decide the terms for wilderness management? That’s the heart of the controversy surrounding the proposal to designate a large portion of Idaho’s Scotchman Peaks Roadless Area as a National Wilderness. Another question arose when a single county’s influence shut down the effort: Who has the final word?
The proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness is a 13,961-acre slice of the 1,627,833-acre Kaniksu National Forest. Kaniksu, in turn, is one of three National Forests grouped under the multi-use Idaho Panhandle National Forest system, spanning roughly 2.5 million acres—including parts of Washington State and Montana, and a section along the Canadian border. In 1987, 75% percent of more than 6,000 respondents endorsed an exploratory review of the roadless area’s official designation as a wilderness, and support continued to grow well into the 21st century.
This part of the Inland Northwest, is spectacular, with thick, green, dense forests giving way to steep meadows and then bare, rocky, moonscape ridges. Choose from stunning views of isolated alpine lakes or a horizon filled with Idaho’s enormous Lake Pend Oreille, but keep an eye peeled for the resident mountain goats. They’re always on the lookout for salty skin to lick, and they’ve been spoiled by hikers who don’t know better than to share their trail snacks or juicy huckleberries picked along the way. To be fair, though, the goats can be pretty convincing. That persuasive skill might have come in handy for supporters of the designation.
The proposed wilderness area is constrained within the boundaries of Idaho’s Bonner County, where it became a point of contention for the dozen years the proposal was in its planning stages. And for all intents and purposes, it was up to the citizens of Bonner County to endorse Bill S. 3531, which formally proposed the Scotchman Peaks as a designated wilderness area.
When they didn’t, I wasn’t at all surprised. Timing is everything, they say, and 2018 was perhaps the worst time to ask the public to approve increased Federal restrictions on public lands.
The Kaniksu National Forest, which has been under federal management since the 1900s, draws outdoor enthusiasts from around the continent. Multi-use trails, world-class bass and trout fishing, and nearby reservoirs, rivers, and ski resorts have supported the small gateway towns along the border between Northwest Montana and the Idaho Panhandle. Off-roading with trucks, ATVs, and snowmobilers is popular here, drawing visitors from hundreds of miles away. Around here, old-school hunting guides and their mule strings take wealthy hunters into the backcountry for trophy game. It’s a good thing because nowadays, diverse tourism attractions in the Idaho Panhandle and Northwest Montana keeps these communities afloat.
The city of Sandpoint—the Bonner County seat—and surrounding towns were literally built by the lumber companies in the late 1880s and early 1900s. A century later, domestic mills’ rising operating costs made it difficult for them to compete against overseas buyers. Raw U.S.-harvested logs were shipped to Japan, Germany, and Mexico for processing into dimensional lumber and finished products. These were then imported back into the U.S. The automation of sawmill processes, restricted logging access, low lumber prices, and policies set in place to preserve the Northern Spotted Owl made the 1990s a rough decade for people in this area. Now, only a handful of mills remain in the entire region, limiting the communities north and east of Sandpoint to jobs in hospitality,
Then one of the biggest gaffes in Federal law enforcement history happened. Ruby Ridge, the site of the deadly 1992 standoff between the Randy Weaver family, the FBI, and the ATF, lies roughly 25 miles north of Sandpoint. Weaver’s political and religious ideology notwithstanding, public opinion favored Weaver after his teenage son and wife were killed by a U.S. Marshal and an FBI sniper. In 1995, a Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Government Information report addressed the need for federal law enforcement reforms, and acknowledged the breach of trust caused between the federal government and its citizens.
Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act in 2012 kicked off a movement to transfer ownership of federal lands to the states in which they’re located. Cliven Bundy’s 2014 standoff in Nevada and his sons’ 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Preserve in Oregon amplified the debate across mainstream media. Each of these states borders Idaho, and the Montana county just over the state line from Bonner—and bordering the proposed Scotchman Peaks wilderness—has its own connections to the land transfer movement. Sanders County is home to Montana State Senator Jennifer Fielder, an activist for the cause who has publicly aligned herself with the Bundy family. She’s the head of American Lands Council, a group that advocates for the transfer of federal land to state ownership and greater access to recreational use, and availability of natural resources to private interests.
The public debate was in full swing before the vote, in spite of the overwhelming costs and of the previous years’ fire season. State and federal agencies spent $400 million spent on Montana forest fires in 2017; $62 paid from state funds. Federal grants paid for 75% of state costs. Those who are rallying for state control of Federally-held lands want to increase natural resource extraction, including logging and mining, to pay for forest management and firefighting costs.
Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, Inc., founded in 2005, is the grassroots organization most locals associate with the wilderness proposal. From offices in the Western Montana towns of Heron and Libby as well as in Sandpoint, the group struggles to offset concerns that increased federal restrictions will impede public access and the local economy.
It’s difficult to do, given that some of these restrictions aren’t clearly defined; firefighting and prevention methods, game management, and other conservations policies would require different protocols in a designated wilderness area. In this region, most outdoor enthusiasts are well-versed in laws applied to hunting and fishing, timber harvesting, forest fire restrictions, and off-roading. Those who depend on access to gather firewood and food take these laws very seriously, as do locals who hunt for antler sheds, culinary mushrooms, and huckleberries—all important sources of income in one of the most impoverished areas in Montana and Idaho.
They—we—appreciate cold, hard facts and as they relate to wilderness status, federal policies are vague. Given that many of the most vocal FSPW members are on the opposite political spectrum as most residents with different views on hunting and backcountry travel, lack of concrete information only increased suspicion. I get it; I had a tough time untangling the facts from the maybes, and I know I wasn’t alone.
In a May 2018 Sandpoint Reader panel, FSPW executive director Phil Hough, staunch opponent and Bonner County Commissioner Dan McDonald, and Erick Walker of the Sandpoint Ranger District agreed to discuss the proposal’s more controversial or confusing bullet points. Even though it was probably the most comprehensive in-print discussion among pro, con, and neutral parties, questions still remained. And it’s that kind fuzziness that reignites distrust of enhanced federal management, even among those of my friends who would self-identify as granola-crunching tree-huggers.
I support FSPW, but it took a leap of faith. I don’t think locals will be adversely affected by the clearly-defined restrictions, especially given the proposed wilderness area’s size, existing road infrastructure, and location as it relates to the rest of the expansive forests. But I do understand the fear of the unknown.
So now we’re back to Bill S. 3531, introduced by Idaho U.S. Senator James Elroy Risch in 2016. It had a great deal of pubic support in Montana, Idaho, and eastern Washington, but in 2018 Bonner County Commissioners added a nonbinding advisory vote to their ballot to gauge local support for the bill. Senator Risch pledged to honor the results when deciding whether or not to abandon the Scotchman Peaks proposal.
On May 15, 2018, 56% of Bonner County voters squashed the plan, and so did Risch. But it’s not dead yet. Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness refuse to give up, and maybe the next time they have a shot, public opinion and land-use politics won’t be as contentious.
In the meantime, Scotchman Peaks is still wild. The goats are still (too) friendly. The death-defying hike to the top is worth every step. Because some victories are sweetest after a monumental struggle.