The chili being dished out at a June 23 luncheon wasn't the only spicy thing on the menu for the Idaho Environmental Forum's newest entry in the escalating debate over Idaho's Boulder-White Clouds area.
"This should be an interesting, fast-moving presentation," promised moderator Will Whelan, director of government relations for the Nature Conservancy.
He was half-right. Interesting? Absolutely. Fast-moving? It was, until some of the forum's participants abused their microphone privileges. The afternoon was always lively, however, thanks to the plain-talking of Brad Brooks, deputy regional director of the Wilderness Society, and Custer County Commissioner Wayne Butts.
"I'm pretty damn blunt and sometimes rude," said Butts. "Deal with it."
Butts said his numbers didn't lie. Quite simply, his constituents have no desire for President Barack Obama to issue a proclamation establishing the Boulder-White Clouds Mountains National Monument, covering more than 500,000 acres between Sun Valley and Challis.
"I would be hard-pressed to find 1 percent of Custer County that are in favor of this," said Butts. "I'm totally opposed. This whole thing became a jumbled-up mess."
But Brooks said it was congressional inaction on Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson's own wilderness bill for the area that was the cause of the "jumbled-up mess."
"The intransigence in Congress isn't getting better. It's getting worse," said Brooks, whose organization has been on the front lines of urging Obama to move forward with the monument designation.
That's when Gary O'Malley, executive director of the Sawtooth Society, took the lion's share of the time, beginning with his ode to David Letterman's "Top 10."
"Here are the Top 10 reasons why I'm against this," started O'Malley, beginning with No. 10--"Let's not screw up a good thing"--all the way down to No. 1--"credibility."
"I'm talking about the credibility of people who say they're concerned with our environment," said O'Malley.
If he hadn't yet raised the hackles of a number of the attendees, many of them some of Idaho's most prominent conservationists, he was about to.
"Their credibility is at risk. There's information out there that is simply not accurate," said O'Malley.
Several minutes later, O'Malley raised the same theme when he held up a door-hanger that had recently appeared on front doors throughout Southern Idaho.
"This says, 'The Boulder-White Clouds are at risk for mining.' That's simply not true," he said, adding that the literature was asking citizens to sign a petition in support of the monument designation.
But Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen was quick to grab the microphone to tell the audience that the literature had nothing to do with a separate petition, which he supported, urging Obama to move forward with the monument declaration. Schoen said, to date, the petition had garnered more than 700 signatures.
"How many people in this room have lived in, or visited, Blaine County?" asked Schoen, while the majority of hands in the room reached for the sky. "Now, how many people in this room have lived in, or visited, Custer County?"
Even more hands flew up.
"It's not just about Blaine and Custer counties. A lot of people have a stake in public lands," he said.
Indeed, in the same hour that the IEF event was taking place in downtown Boise's Hoff Building, just a few blocks away, at Boise City Hall, Mayor Dave Bieter was throwing his support behind the monument proposal.
"Boise is the largest population center in Idaho that uses and cares about the Boulder-White Clouds," Bieter wrote in a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "A meeting hosted here in Boise would allow you to hear from a broad spectrum of voices and gather insight on how Idahoans feel about protecting the Boulder-White Clouds as a National Monument."
Blaine County has approximately 21,000 residents; Custer County only about 4,300 residents. But the U.S. Forest Service estimates that up to 1.6 million visitors come through the Boulder-White Clouds region each year.
"And if you ever floated the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, you can thank Sen. Frank Church for the protection of that area," said Brooks, referring to the breathtaking wilderness and whitewater rivers that were formally protected in 1980 on the strength of the late-senator's efforts.
"I don't see the issue of the Boulder-White Clouds as any different as that issue back then," he said.
But Butts wanted to have the last word on the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, where people come from across the globe to raft and hike.
"But the Frank Church [wilderness area] has gotten to the point where it's only usable by folks who have lots of money," said Butts.
And of those people with lots of money, Brooks said the monument designation would have to put a limit on the ever-growing motorized recreation in the area.
"But that's not to say we don't want motorized recreation; quite to the contrary, we just don't want to see it go beyond from its current level," he said. "Let me put it this way; you don't wait to buy flood insurance until the river was overflowing its banks."
But the river of debate is quickly approaching flood stage.