In the summer of 1973, I was one of 30 seasonal wilderness workers in the Wilderness Zone of the newborn Sawtooth National Recreation Area. My assignment was to walk through the Boulder Mountains and assess the range's potential for recreational use.
By summer's end, I had worn out the hard Vibram soles of three pairs of hiking boots and had been on top of most of the Boulders. I had been up every creek on the map, and I'd discovered that the map isn't the territory. Lots of creeks were dry. Lots of summits were higher than they looked.
My end-of-season report emphasized the brittle delicacy of the high desert landscape. In the high circs, footprints lasted for years, and the scorched-earth camps of hikers and hunters, from the looks of them, had lasted for generations. I noted that putting more people into the area would compound the damage.
The Boulders lacked recreational potential, I concluded, in spite of having just spent an idyllic summer in them. What I meant was they couldn't handle thousands of hiking boots going through them without becoming as worn out as the hiking boots.
Four decades later, the Boulders remain much as I experienced them. Now, however, they are being promoted as a national monument. In the face of the failure of U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson's CIEDRA, the Idaho Conservation League, Cecil Andrus and the federal executive branch are trying to make the Boulder-White Clouds a wilderness by fiat.
I don't have space to list all the reasons why this is a lousy idea, but here are a few:
--Wilderness designation doesn't preserve anything. It's not about management of the wild, it's about management of people, in the sense that it creates a structure that funnels large numbers of people through a wild area and tells them all they can and cannot do.
--It's the same with national monuments, except that visitors under 62 have to pay.
--Much noise has been devoted to the effect that this national monument would be run by the Forest Service and not the Park Service, but that is a temporary situation that awaits the efficient consolidation of all national monuments under one agency. And PL 92-400, the act of Congress that established the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, has a provision for its high mountain areas to eventually become part of the national park system.
--If President Obama declares the Boulder-White Clouds a national monument, he will have conferred at length with his dynamic new secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell. 2016 will see yearlong celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the Park Service. If you think that Jewell, lately of the Recreational-Industrial Complex, the person The New York Times called "a woman of untamed energy, competitiveness and confidence," is going to let a new national monument go to the Forest Service without a fight--think again.
--The amount of visitors has forced the creation of sacrifice zones within the Sawtooth Wilderness. Go to Sawtooth Lake, up Redfish Creek to Flat Rock Junction or to Hell Roaring Lake and you will see the worn spots where too many people have loved the wilderness. Part of this problem is accessibility, but more of it is that wilderness designation attracts too many people. Far from preserving the wild, it compromises it.
--Arbitrary actions by the federal government can be undone by arbitrary actions by the federal government. If there is one institution that's going to change its outlook and its priorities in the next decade, it's the federal government. Once you start throwing executive orders around, anything can happen. The Boulder-White Clouds could become a game preserve, or they could be reopened to mining in a national emergency. If these things seem improbable, remember that CIEDRA would have transferred federal lands on the edge of wilderness to trophy-home developers.
--As always, the argument is made that people and businesses will prosper if more land is designated wilderness. Visit the town of Challis, a natural gateway to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, to see how that works out.
--Sometimes preserving the wild means keeping it under the radar. That's where the Boulders and White Clouds are now, in spite of the altitude of their summits.
That's enough. There are other reasons not to like the idea of a national monument, but I'll save them for the I-told-you-so column. For now, a few sad observations:
The Idaho Conservation League has prided itself on relentlessness in the face of opposition, even when that opposition has been reasonable, considered and informed by long experience. I've concluded the ICL agenda comes from the ego needs of its leaders and a desire to please the Pew Charitable Trusts, and not from a commitment to the Idaho wild.
Also, Cecil Andrus has done a great deal for Idaho, but he's not doing the Idaho Democratic Party any good by pushing this scheme. He's messing with his legacy and risks being remembered by his former supporters as a person who spent the meager political capital of his party on a monument to his glory days.
Lastly, the public gaze should focus on the supervisor's office of the Sawtooth National Forest in Twin Falls, which has starved the Sawtooth National Recreation Area of funds by treating it as just one of its ranger districts. Where there were once dozens of wilderness rangers cleaning camps, educating the public, clearing trails and acting in other ways to protect the wild, now there are two. Bureaucratic malfeasance to preserve office jobs has been and always will be a threat to Idaho's federal lands. Neglect is one of its more benign forms. It's not going to go away if and when the area is called a national monument.