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Environmentalists Work to Preserve Idaho's Wilderness - 2002-05-29


Many environmentalists say designating some of the more pristine federally-owned lands as Wilderness is the best way to protect them from development. But that's not easy to do. Congress must pass a bill and the president must sign it before any land is given such strict protection.

Since the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, more than 42 million hectares have been designated as Wilderness. Conservationists are now fighting for 22 new wilderness areas - mostly in western states. Two campaigns are being waged in Idaho, a state that is two-thirds federal land but hasn't had a new wilderness designation in 21 years.

Twelve-year-old Dustin Showers and his 11-year-old sister, Flora skip along the shoreline of Redfish Lake they drag sticks in the water, hop atop an old fallen tree, nibble chocolate and peer into the lake. "You can see right through the water, even in the depth and it's just unexplainable to say how peaceful and nice it is out here," he said. "like it up here because it's serene, quiet and you can go exploring."

It's sentiments like these that have brought 150 people from Idaho and other western states to this spectacular place this weekend, in the shadow of the snowy craggy peaks of the Sawtooth Wilderness. The Idaho Conservation League, the state's largest environmental group, has met here each spring for about two decades, to discuss ways to get wilderness protection for other sites - mountains with alluring names like the Boulder White Clouds, the Smokies, the Pioneers, and the Clearwater. They've recently added a desert to their 'wish list' the Owyhee Canyonlands. Wilderness designation forbids most activities like mining, logging and any kind of motors, but allows grazing.

ICL director Rick Johnson leans against a graying log and admits his group spent a lot of years not talking to the opposition. "It's easy to find agreement when you're talking to yourself," he said. "It's a lot harder to get out there and really work these issues with your neighbors and the people in the communities that are most are affected."

So, for the past few years, Mr. Johnson has followed a different strategy. Like other groups in the West, the ICL now reaches out to the ranchers, loggers, and rural people they traditionally battle in court, at public hearings and at street rallies. John McCarthy, the Conservation League's policy director, tells members cooperation will make a difference. "One of the things we have in common with a lot of people in Idaho is we would like things to stay the same, the best of what we have here to stay relatively the same and not get developed," he said.

By finding common ground with former opponents, conservationists were able to get more than a half million hectares of land around the country designated as Wilderness in the last session of Congress. The land was mostly in districts represented by conservative Republicans a group usually known as a friend of developers.

Idaho Senator Mike Crapo calls himself a conservative Republican, and his voting record proves it. Before going into Redfish Lake Lodge to meet with environmentalists for the third year in a row, he takes a minute to sit on the lakeshore and reminisce - he points to the next mountain range beyond. "I went on my honeymoon in the Boulder White Cloud area in central Idaho and it's one of the most beautiful places on the earth, so I talked my wife Susan into going out there on our honeymoon and she fell in love with it too," he said.

It's this love of the land that helped unite this conservative Republican politician with what often is considered a liberal democratic cause. Dressed in jeans and a green plaid shirt, Senator Crapo tells the conservationists he's committed to wilderness protection, but only if it happens through consensus with all interested partiesranchers, outfitters, environmentalists and motorized recreation groups. "I will keep people at the table, I will bring people to the table I will support whatever has to be done to help those that want to cause disruption to get them back in the fold. But I will not dictate what the table decides," said Senator Crapo.

In fact, Senator Crapo says he'll support whatever this collaborative process ends up with, even if he disagrees with it. Collaboration hasn't resolved the Boulder White Cloud wilderness effort yet. But Senator Crapo's work with the new Owyhee Initiative, which aims to find common ground in south Idaho's arid canyon lands, is moving ahead.

Each group lays out its wish list. Off-road vehicle users want to continue their mostly unrestricted access for recreation, while conservationists want limits on the noisy machines, saying they cause erosion and spread weeds. Ranchers want grazing freedoms but environmentalists, like Ginger Harmon, want to keep cattle out of certain areas, especially along streambeds. The seventy-two year old activist spends most days hiking through desert sagebrush country all over the west, where most new wilderness campaigns are now being waged. "When you get out there and come to a beautiful stream, and find that it's been trampled down, it's covered with cow poop, the trees have been chewed down by the cattle," she said.

Speaking for the Idaho Cattle Association, Sarah Brauch says most ranchers do properly manage their lands. "In a lot of cases with riparian areas ranchers have put in off-site water developments, where they've got troughs that are further away from the creek so the cattle can still get the drink of water they need on a hot dusty day, but they don't enter the creek at all the same point," she said.

Despite such differences, all sides are now meeting at the table and listening to each other with respect. They already agree on one point it's going to be a long journey.

The concept of setting aside more Wilderness remains unpopular in Idaho. The one and a half million hectares already designated here is enough for people like Steve Batey, an engineer at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. He's fishing with his dad and just caught a big bull trout in the stream that flows out of Redfish Lake. "He's four pounds, right there, that's a bull trout, yeah, he's an endangered species, so you put him back in," he said. "That was a good fight, it was fun, it was the biggest fish I ever caught in my life."

It's the pure clean icy water that comes from the protected Sawtooth Wilderness that makes it possible for the few remaining bull trout to survive here. But Steve Batey is uncomfortable at the notion of more wilderness designations. "I think we need a balance," said Steve Batey. "You get too much, you lock everything down, so nobody can enjoy it. If you can't get to it, then you can't enjoy it."

Wind howls up a mountainside as Doug Scott, policy director for the Seattle-based Pew Wilderness Center, makes his way along a steep trail. He's worked for wilderness preservation for the past 34 years, and at times, he gets angry at what he calls a lack of foresight to protect more land from development. "What right do we have in our arrogance today, for our sense of our immediate needs, to rob all the generations of the future of that right," he said. "We don't have any right. We have an obligation as stewards, we are trustees for the future, just as much as we are inheritors from those that were trustees before us."

Doug Scott advises wilderness advocates across the country to find common ground with adversaries. With no new wilderness designation in Idaho over the past two decades, that may be the only path left.