Access concerns dominate Boulder-White Clouds monument debate

By December 6, 2013 February 15th, 2016 No Comments

Dec. 06–STANLEY — Erik Leidecker is conflicted.

Growing up in the Wood River Valley, Leidecker has seen more and more recreationists take to the mountains north of his hometown. As owner of the Stanley-based Sawtooth Mountain Guides, he leads others through the Sawtooth Mountains and the Boulder-White Clouds Mountains.

“There is no doubt that there are thousands of people for whom this is their own little private sanctuary,” he said.

While the Sawtooths west of Idaho 75 are designated wilderness, the area east of Stanley and north of Ketchum is a hodgepodge of state land, private land, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

For decades, conservationists have tried to get the Boulder-White Clouds Mountains set aside as wilderness to prevent more roads, logging, mining and use of motorized and mechanized transportation.

That, however, takes an act of Congress. So now the groups are lobbying the Obama administration to establish a 571,276-acre Boulder-White Clouds National Monument.

Some see a monument as the middle ground between the current multiple-use management and the conservation of a wilderness designation.

Leidecker said he’s followed the debate for years but is still conflicted. His gut tells him the management should be left as it is, certain and in local control. But he’d like to see some protections, chiefly less motorized use.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘If it ain’t broke,’ and it seems like that might be a pretty legitimate way to think about the Boulder-White Clouds,” he said. “I’m not sure if national monument protection is any better than the protection that it enjoys (now).”

That’s the crux of the debate. The area may be worthy of the national monument pedestal, but the devil is in the details. Management plans are made after a monument is designated, and the process takes years. Most user groups fear that uncertainty.

“It is hard to form an opinion when we don’t know what the management will be,” said Louise Stark, co-owner of the Challis-based White Cloud Outfitters.

A monument listing could “implode” her 28-year business guiding people through the rugged area, she said. Certainty of access is critical to such users, but that certainty does not exist.

A rugged, ‘marvelous’ place

The Boulder-White Clouds is a “marvelous place,” said Dani Mazzotta, a Ketchum-based staffer for the Idaho Conservation League.

The League proposes a monument with 437,676 acres managed by the Forest Service, including the 279,277-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area, plus 133,600 acres managed by the BLM.

The high alpine area is home to “impressive” big game habitat, the headwaters of four major rivers and more than 150 lakes higher than 10,000 feet in elevation, Mazzotta said.

The League promotes the area as “one of the largest under-protected roadless landscapes in the Lower 48.”

The Forest Service portion has 329,636 acres of Inventoried Roadless Area plus 91.4 miles of motorized and non-motorized trails, agency spokeswoman Julie Thomas said. The agency also has 210,512 acres comprising seven grazing allotments in the SNRA and Ketchum Ranger District.

The BLM’s portion has several ATV, single-track and non-motorized paths. Roads range from primitive to improved, and some are only open seasonally. Also in the BLM area are four partial or whole wilderness study areas, 13 grazing allotments and a section of wild horse range.

A monument would bring the land under one management plan, superseding the three existing plans.

Mazzotta said that would benefit the connected nature of the watershed.

Stark disagreed. The existing plans are better because the diverse land has numerous uses.

“It would probably be insanity for them to try to manage all that country the same way because they’d have to initiate environmental work that would probably take a century to get through,” she said.

Mazzotta said the League and other groups want the monument managed jointly by the Forest Service and BLM, not the National Park Service. They also are pushing for Idaho Fish and Game to keep regulating hunting and fishing.

“It is tricky when folks try to generalize that ‘all monuments are this,’ because really they are not,” she said. “There are monuments that don’t have a single paved road and not a single visitor service in them all the way to the other end of the spectrum.”

An economic boost?

Matt Leidecker, Erik’s brother and a Hailey photographer and guidebook author, said he favors a wilderness designation so much that he’s willing to give up his beloved mountain biking there.

“I think it is important to protect the wild places that we have with as robust protections as we can muster, because we don’t have that many of them left,” he said.

But he said he’d settle for a monument, which would bring more notoriety and more people, benefiting the economy and guiding services such as his brother’s.

Monument proponents commissioned an economic study that said 170,125 people would visit the site annually, modestly boosting the economy. The study projects a spending increase of 10 percent to 33 percent and 47 to 155 new jobs, adding $3.7 million to $12.3 million to the four counties’ “total economic output.”

For outfitter Stark, though, a limit on access and guiding reduces how much business can be done.

“If they should do away with outfitting or cancel out hunting or restrict all outfitters in there into accessing the area from certain locations, like specific trailheads, that would have a huge impact on all of us,” she said.

The economic study says closing trails won’t decrease use. Rather, “protection might well provide an enhanced experience where those opportunities remain available, which would in turn increase visitorship,” it reads.

That’s “silliness,” said Sandra Mitchell, executive director of the Idaho Recreation Council, who thinks the monument idea is unnecessary.

“Nobody wants to go to the same area and ride (or hike) the same 50 miles of trail every weekend,” she said. “That’s ridiculous. … We are all looking for the same experience. If that’s true — the smaller the area, the more enhanced experience — why do we have 4.5 million acres of wilderness? How many acres do you need?”

Tread lightly

Management of Boulder-White Clouds now allows for snowmobiling, winter mountaineering, skiing, four-wheeling, single track dirt biking, mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding and more.

While Conservation League publications propose a continued balance of uses, Mazzotta can’t guarantee what that means.

“We’re still trying to really grasp that even and figure that out for ourselves,” she said.

While she doesn’t expect any roads to close, Mazzotta and others do expect motorized users to be restricted most. The League lists off-road vehicles and grazing as “primary threats” to the area if not properly managed.

“The goal here is not to steamroll the motorized community; it’s trying to grab a better hold onto places where irresponsible motorized use is happening and to prevent that from happening into the future,” she said.

That doesn’t sit well with Greg Moore, vice president of the Southern Idaho Off Road Association, which visits Boulder-White Clouds annually.

“We are concerned about anything happening to it … ” Moore said. “Our club is losing a lot of trail, and so are the ATVers.”

Moore said it doesn’t matter how much his group argues with conservationists; they “don’t want motorized use anywhere.”

“They don’t know what they are talking about,” he said. “We have less weight per square inch than what a person on foot does. We’re a club that believes in our motto, which is ‘tread lightly.’ We have been taking care of the natural beauty and environment so that all of us can enjoy it.”

Snowmobile enthusiasts share those concerns, said Scott Chapman, Idaho representative of the Snowmobile Alliance of Western States.

They’d like the Boulder-White Clouds left alone. The League has promised its donors some action there, and this is its “last-ditch effort,” he said. He said he fears snowmobilers will be excluded from monument planning efforts.

Motorized use rules also affect hunters. About half of Idaho hunters rely on ATVs, said John Caywood, member of the new Sportsmen for Boulder-White Clouds group.

Caywood, a former Twin Falls resident, said he enjoys hunting and recreating in the Boulder-White Clouds, and the monument quest has increased his “thirst” for the area. A balance of motorized access and wilderness protection benefits big game habitat, he said.

“I’m trying to be practical about this,” Caywood said. “How can we have as many people out there having as much fun as they can? Let’s enjoy it, use it, have it contribute to the economy and then have rules at some point that optimize the hunting and fishing.”

That can only be achieved if hunters and anglers get ahead of the discussion and influence the monument proclamation from the start, he said.

Whose experience?

That’s exactly why mountain bikers from the Wood River Valley have been flooding meetings about the Boulder-White Clouds, said Hailey resident Brett Stevenson.

While many mountain bikers share the environmental lobby’s concerns, and most agree that biking effects are comparable to those of horses or hikers, they struggle to address specific trail use, said Stevenson, executive director of the Wood River Bicycle Coalition.

The debate has come down to hikers’ experience versus that of mountain bikers.

“Well then we question why is it that non-motorized recreation might be closed out of this area … and it becomes an experience issue,” she said. “Some hikers feel like their hiking experience would be impaired if they saw a bicycle on the same trail.”

That’s “not a compelling enough” reason to close trails when hikers have no shortage of “primitive viewing opportunities” in Idaho wilderness, she said.

While many popular biking trails are outside the proposed monument’s border, several longer backcountry rides weave through it. Stevenson said those trails are self-limiting and should remain open, as they are unique to the state and “not your average ride.”

As a hiker who has tried twice to climb all of the area’s 11,000-foot peaks in one push, Matt Leidecker said he isn’t concerned about shifting of hiking trailheads or loss of access for foot traffic.

“I think it is going to open them up and, if anything, improve,” he said. “There will be more money, more interpretive information, and there will be a better condition of the trails and roads, I’d imagine.”

Regardless of the outcome, Stevenson said she’s excited to hear the debate.

“I spend as much time as I can in those mountains, and I think a lot of people here do the same … that’s why people are really coming out in droves for these public meetings, because it means so much for our quality of life but also our local economy. It is inspiring to see how much people are getting motivated by this topic.”

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