Friends of Scotchman Peaks have much to celebrate as new year begins

2014 was a banner year, 2015 marks a decade of working for Wilderness.

As 2015 begins, Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness have multiple reasons to celebrate. Recent passage of the Montana Heritage Act proves Congress is, indeed, still able — and even somewhat willing — to designate Wilderness. Also, 2014 was epic for FSPW. Not a lot happened on the surface in efforts to have the roadless area on the Idaho-Montana border designated part of the National Wilderness System, but a lot happened on the ground within the proposal. A new Congress and significant progress in local support make designation more possible in 2015 than it has been for a few years.

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The Star Peak All Stars take a moment on the last weekend of work on Trail #999, which opened for business in August, and was officially dedicated in September after  four summers of cooperative work between FSPW, the USFS and other volunteer groups. Left to right are Bill Arnold, Irv McGeachy, Phil Hough, Sandy Compton, Joe Zimmerman, Golden Canine, Phil Degens and Brad Smith

“Our new commission in Bonner County is very supportive,” FSPW executive director Phil Hough said, “and we’ve worked hard in our two Western Montana counties to gain support in a number of ways, including opening an office in Libby and helping create the Lincoln County Prosperity Forum Series. The coming year will be a landmark for the Friends for several reasons.”

First of all, the Friends mark 10 years of existence on January 14. They plan to celebrate early and late. The celebration begins in Sandpoint, Friday, January 9, with a gala “picnic” at Tango Café in the Columbia Bank. “We want to do something different for our tenth,” FSPW program coordinator Sandy Compton said, “so we’re serving ‘camp food,’ wearing our hiking boots and shunning anyone who shows up wearing a tie. Goretex is optional. And camp food doesn’t mean ‘freeze-dried.’ ”

March events in Troy and Thompson Falls will feature author and historian Jack Nisbet speaking on David Thompson’s explorations of the Kootenai and Clark Fork valleys in the early 1800s.

The January gala features live music from jazz and blues singer Samantha Carstens backed by Sandpoint guitarists Truck Mills and Drew Browne. “We’re putting 90 minutes of live music up for bid,” said Compton. “Samantha and the guys donated one of the ‘wildly unique’ items in our live and silent auctions. If you want to have a dance party, here’s your chance to get a great band at a good price.”

“We are also approaching out 5,000th Friend,” Hough said. “When we started in 2005, I had no thought that we would garner as many supporters as we have.” He laughs. “Of course, we also thought we would have designation in five years. That was the plan. We had a lot to learn.”

The Friends’ Facebook page is approaching a landmark 2,000 “likes.”

As the organization grew, particularly after the initial five years did not bring the anticipated result, the activities of FSPW expanded.

“We’re still working for Wilderness,” Compton says, “but we have changed our range of vision. In 2009, when I came to work, we were strictly an advocacy group, but in the ensuing half decade, we’ve learned that stewardship is the most sincere form of advocacy. If you want people to care about a place, one of the best things you can do is let them help care for it.”

To that end, FSPW volunteers and staff have taken on many types of stewardship within the proposal. It started with one day of work on Scotchman Peak Trail #65 in 2010. Since then, FSPW trail crews have worked hundreds of hours with the Forest Service and other partners, clearing, maintaining and rebuilding trails, including over 20 days reconstructing historic Star Peak tread, dedicated as Trail #999 last September.

Volunteers and staff from FSPW and partners National Forest Foundation (NFF), USFS, Kinnickinnick Native Plant Society and Idaho Master Naturalists spent nearly three weeks over the summers of 2013 and 2014 on the ground in the Lightning Creek NFF “Treasured Landscape.” Volunteers monitored weeds, conducted multi-day white bark pine surveys, worked on stream restoration and assisted with trailside tree planting. This work was funded by NFF and largely coordinated by FSPW staffer Kristen Nowicki, who also took the lead on a successful summer hike program for young children in 2014.

Nowicki, as project coordinator, oversaw for FSPW the last two years of a four-year winter wildlife study ending last spring. The “wolverine watch” focused on rare forest carnivores — particularly mustelids. FSPW took on the West Cabinets, setting and monitoring remote camera stations in Idaho and Montana.

“FSPW volunteers put out and retrieved some of the gnarliest stations in the whole four-year project, particularly last year,” Nowicki said. This project was in partnership with Idaho Department of Fish and Game and other organizations over the years — including Zoo Boise, Selkirk Outdoor Leadership and Education, Idaho Conservation League, Bonner County schools and Spokane’s Sierra Club inner city youth outreach. Over its four-year life, FSPW engaged a huge number of volunteers. The study was responsible for the early exponential growth of the FSPW Facebook page, where a continuous stream of the adventures of wolverine “hunting” Friends were posted each winter.

In 2015, with the help of Libby wildlife researcher Brian Baxter, Nowicki and FSPW morphed the “wolverine watch” into Winter Tracks to teach tracking skills and wildlife monitoring methods to area youth, including kids from Spokane. Come summer, there are plans to revamp the lower portion of the Scotchman Peak trail, as well as continue to work on trails in Lightning Creek and on the Montana side.

“We can’t see into the future,” Compton said, “but it’s my thought that FSPW will be around for a long time. We expanded our vision to include stewardship because we want the group to continue to exist after the primary goal is achieved. Needs and opportunities for boots on the ground won’t go away when the bill passes. There will still be trails, education opportunities, weeds to deal with and conservation issues to work on. Once we achieve designation, the Friends will continue to have important things to do in and around the Wilderness.”

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