Opinion » John Rember

Pushing the Boulder-White Clouds Monument

Privatization, commodification and sacrifice zones


Every few years we're treated to a display of magical thinking by Western state legislators, people who believe that Washington can be forced to give federal lands to the states. These folks forget that the only reason their states exist is because the federal government stole the American West from the people who owned it--fair and square, by means of treaties forced upon defeated and demoralized chiefs. Should those treaties be violated by transfer of federal lands to the states, the lands would revert to the tribes and their lawyers, who might tolerate palefaced squatters if they came up with a couple of centuries' back rent and royalties for sawn-down forests, plowed-up prairie and mined-out minerals.

I doubt such legal niceties cloud the minds of sagebrush rebels. They dream of lakes and mountains sold to the highest bidder, forests transformed into stump farms and mining regulations buried under great piles of smelted slag. It's a vision straight out of the 19th century, when Manifest Destiny was our national creed, Progress our national religion and the frontier a short walk to the west. There were no limits on what you could do if you didn't mind wrecking people's lives and landscapes.

Asking our legislators to look critically at that vision is like asking fish to explain their philosophy of water. It's not something they've ever felt the need to contemplate. They simply know, in their hearts, that if the federal government would stop interfering, the West could develop as God intended. If any Indian tribes object, they should remember what happened when they objected last time.

For a year or so, I've been writing about the internal contradictions, hidden agendas and unintended consequences of a Boulder-White Clouds National Monument. Magical thinking underlies the arguments for a BWC monument just as much as it underlies the arguments of sagebrush rebels. In both cases, wishes overwhelm reality. But here are some realities that are pushing back:

--Wilderness is artifact. It's a product of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which provides a legal basis for excluding motors, mountain bikes and permanent structures from designated real estate. It requires maintenance and law enforcement, in the form of wilderness rangers who destroy fire rings and lean-tos, and who make sure dogs are on leash, horses have packed-in feed and people don't defecate in the lakes or on their neighbors' tent sites. It's a good law, but it's just a law. Without enforcement and public support, it means nothing.

--A BWC monument won't guarantee wilderness. Only Congress can do that. Much of the proposed monument is already being managed as a wilderness study area, de facto wilderness until Congress acts on the matter--as close as you can get to wilderness-in-perpetuity. A monument would open the area to ugly compromise with various mechanized interest groups, 10-year management plans, paved trails for geriatrics and so on.

--A national monument will cost money the federal government doesn't have. For a new 575,000-acre national monument in New Mexico, the BLM has budgeted for three full-time employees, or 192,000 acres per employee. Unreconstructed locals, sensing federal weakness, are making new roads in the monument with off-road vehicles and vandalizing signs and intimidating visitors. If you think this sort of thing can't happen in Idaho, try parking your Volvo station wagon and mountain bikes outside a Challis bar and going in for a few mojitos. You'll be back in the 19th century in no time.

--If President Obama declares a Boulder-White Clouds National Monument, he'll guarantee that Idaho Democrats get no less than 35 percent of the vote for the next 50 years. No more, either.

--A national monument is disguised privatization of federal land. Real estate development surrounds these areas. A good example is the Wood River Valley, "Gateway to the Sawtooth Wilderness," a once-beautiful place now jammed with mausoleums for the 1 percent, For Sale signs, the human wreckage attendant to low wages, and daily traffic jams. Much of the impetus for a BWC national monument comes from Blaine County's desire to return to its glorious and storied past--the 1992-2007 real estate bubble.

--Custer County opponents, not immune to magical thinking themselves, prefer to be seen as cowboys rather than house boys.

--A different form of privatization comes in the form of public-private partnerships. For-profit companies manage recreation and collect fees for the Forest Service, BLM and Park Service, and split the proceeds with them. The effect is a ban on poor people on public lands, and a bunch of low-paying service jobs.

--Something real exists behind all the legalities. The Boulders and the White Clouds are high desert, as dry and delicate as a winter bouquet. Any increase in visitors will damage them, in the manner of the fenced-off, "recovering" areas around Sawtooth and Hell Roaring and Alpine lakes in the Sawtooths, places trampled into dusty sterility by hiking boots. The impulse to designate a national monument should be seen for what it is: the sacrifice of wildlands to get more visitors and their dollars into Idaho, the continued commodification of nature and worship of development as the natural order of things.

Monument proponents get huffy if you ask them to look critically at their vision, but in the end their arguments rest on framing the Boulder White Clouds as a tourist trap. While a national monument won't offer more protection than already exists, it will deliver the BWC to the tourism-industrial complex, where it will join other once-wild areas sacrificed to the profit motive. Better--far better--to give it back to the Indians.