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Uphill Battle: Proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness Area Grows Controversy

A proposed North Idaho wilderness hangs on bureaucracy, politics and old habits

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Phil Hough could smell the mountain goats before he saw them. Shrugging off his pack, he looked around the summit. "It sure smells like goats up here." And sure enough, there they were: four of them, white dots in two pairs, lounging on jutting outcroppings of rock across a dizzying ravine.

The goats--hulking, horned and shaggy with sad-looking old-man faces--are a major attraction for Scotchman's Peak. They even serve as its unofficial mascot. At 7,009 feet, it is the highest point in Northern Idaho's rugged Bonner County. Vegetation is sparse and the clammy October clouds run ragged across its summit.

Though seemingly fearless in their surefootedness, the goats live a precarious existence amid the shattered high mountain rocks. "Their mortality rate is 50 to 70 percent in early childhood--from falling," Hough said.

The future of the Scotchman Peaks area is similarly precarious. Covering 88,000 acres, the proposed wilderness is managed by the U.S. Forest Service and sits at a nexus of competing interests and ideologies. While the western portion of the area is in Idaho, the bulk of the mountainous terrain lies across the border in Montana. Three counties--one in Idaho and two in Montana--would host the wilderness, and it straddles both the Idaho Panhandle and Kootenai national forests.

Within those jurisdictions are groups seeking to protect wildlife, promote recreation and preserve hunting and fishing opportunities. At the same time, there are mining interests, depressed rural economies that would like to expand timber harvesting, and many residents who would rather the federal government get out of the land-owning business all together.

Add to all that an age-old rural tradition that sees nature conservation in direct opposition to economic development, and gaining federal wilderness designation turns into an uphill battle. It's Hough's job to help win it.

An East Coast native with a bachelor's degree in English from Colby College, he chucked a career in hotel management in the early '90s and hit the trail--literally. Since then he has paddled the Yukon River and hiked the Pacific Crest, Appalachian and Continental Divide trails. In 2002, he arrived in Sagle, a nebulously defined forest town south of Sandpoint, and it wasn't long before he discovered Scotchman standing sentinel over the eastern expanse of Lake Pend Oreille.

It was love at first sight. In 2005, he and a group of concerned outdoor enthusiasts formed the Friends of the Scotchman Peak Wilderness, a grass-roots organization dedicated to winning federal wilderness designation not only for the peaks but the 88,000 acres of surrounding backcountry.

"The visionaries back at the turn of the last century--John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt--when they were looking at the creation of the National Park System knew that these were special places that need to be set aside," Hough said. "The Scotchman Peaks is one of those places."

Uphill Both Ways

The hike up Scotchman is not for the faint of heart. From the trailhead, found at the end of a dirt road made all but impassable during the high runoff season, the path climbs into the forest at a 20 percent grade for the first half mile or so. This is the part that veteran hikers warn the newbies about. It's easy to lose heart--there are more than three more miles to go, climbing an average of 1,000 feet per mile.

Efforts to permanently preserve the Scotchman region have been not unlike that first half mile. Forest policy is always contentious and the proposed wilderness is made all the more difficult because of its location. Sitting at such a confluence of political, economic and environmental interests, movement on the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness Area has taken the crawling pace of a winded hiker.

The Forest Service has labeled the Scotchman Peak area of the Cabinet Mountains a "recommended" wilderness since its last Forest Plan was issued for the Idaho Panhandle and Kootenai national forests in 1987. That means the Scotchman Peaks are managed much like a designated wilderness--motorized use is strictly limited and timber harvest is excluded--except it could change with an administrative decision. That places the Scotchmans in a sort of limbo.

"There would be a great deal of certainty with designation," Hough said. "That would come from Congress. And while Congress can overturn its decisions from time to time, with the current framework, it's an agency decision to manage the area as 'recommended' wilderness."

A new forest plan has been in the works since 2002, but a raft of federal rule changes during the Bush administration set the document back at least five years. A draft plan was set to be released in 2006--it was even printed--but the perennial controversy surrounding forest planning caused yet another rule change, and it was back to the drawing board.

Now, with policies more settled, the Forest Service is finally getting ready to finish the long-awaited plan, which sets management policy for a broad range of lands in northern Idaho, including the Scotchman Peaks.

"In 1987, the Scotchman area was recommended and/or proposed wilderness, and that's not necessarily new in this round of planning," said Kent Wellner, recreational program manager for the Idaho Panhandle National Forest and the Forest Service's team leader on the plan. "The reason it's taken so long--I've been working on it for nine years--is that forest planning is very controversial. A lot of different interests are concerned ... It's hard to make everybody happy."

According to Wellner, a draft plan could be released as early as November and must be completed before the end of the year. A lengthy review process will follow and, as he pointed out, not everyone will be happy.

Rural North Idaho and northwestern Montana have always been heavily dependent on natural resources, and the expansion of federally protected lands often translates as fewer opportunities for industry.

"We already have some wilderness here, and the only chance we have for any kind of economy is with the mines and hopefully the timber," said Ron Downey, a commissioner in Montana's Lincoln County, where much of the proposed wilderness would be located. "I would say that a large percentage of Lincoln County is against it. For one thing, our economy is in the tank. I think officially our unemployment rate is 15 percent or 16 percent, but it's probably well over 20 percent, really."

Across the border in Idaho, Bonner County Commissioner Lewis Rich is similarly skeptical about the need for federally designated wilderness.

"The majority of the constituents that I talk to are very much concerned about the actual usage of the ground, as far as being able to manage it on a local basis and the control getting out of our hands," Rich said. "It is by definition in its ruggedness and remoteness somewhat of a wilderness, but I wouldn't support a federal designation."

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