Re-printed from the Daily Bee, March 16, 2006
County backs Scotchman’s wilderness designation
By KEITH KINNAIRD
Group hopes to secure additional political support
SANDPOINT — Bonner County commissioners are throwing their support behind an effort to designate the Scotchman Peak area as wilderness, adding an important voice to the growing chorus of people calling for the area to be protected.
“Its steep slopes, remote valleys, grizzly bear habitat and possession of the highest point in Bonner County all support inclusion as wilderness,” commissioners said in a letter to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne detailing their recommendations for management of roadless areas.
Kempthorne is soliciting the recommendations from county commissions throughout the state as the Bush administration tries to resolve the long-standing roadless debate.
The board’s recommendation came as a pleasant surprise to the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, a grassroots group lobbying for the permanent protection of the 88,000-acre area which straddles the Idaho/Montana border within two national forests.
“I really didn’t think they’d make any specific recommendations pro or con for any areas, so it was actually really pretty exciting that they singled out Scotchman’s for support,” said Phil Hough, the group’s chairman.
The Friends of Scotchman Peaks seek to ultimately have Congress declare the area a federal wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service can recommend the area for the wilderness designation, but Congress doesn’t typically act on agency recommendations alone, Hough said.
What’s more common in the creation of wilderness areas, Hough said, is a congressman introduces a bill, but the federal political landscape is shifting in Idaho and has the potential to shift in Montana. Idaho’s District 1 U.S. Representative, Butch Otter, is running for governor, which is creating a crowded footrace for his post. Hough anticipates there will be close races for Montana’s federal delegates, too.
Trying to obtain congressional support at this stage would be premature, Hough said.
“The tack right now to take is to continue to build this grassroots support and continue to build support amongst other local officials — mayors, city councils, state representatives,” he said.
Friends of Scotchman already have the support of Sandpoint Mayor Ray Miller. “Some of our favorite places in Bonner County are backcountry areas accessed by trail. These areas protect our best remaining fishing and hunting spots, as well as the clean water flowing into Lake Pend Oreille,” Miller said in a statement thanking the commission for its support of the wilderness designation. “The commissioners recognized these important values and our children and grandchildren will be glad they did.”
Friends of Scotchman are taking their proposal to various civic groups to encourage their support. They also hope to make inroads with county commissions in Montana’s Lincoln and Sanders counties.
The local political support is considered vital because it demonstrates to federal delegates there are constituents who want the wilderness designation, which would prohibit motorized travel in the backcountry and timber cutting. However, those activities are already banned under the current land management plan.
The wilderness initiative coincides with the Forest Service’s revisions of management plans for the Idaho Panhandle and Kootenai national forests, which appears to be a mixed blessing at the moment. The Idaho Panhandle National Forest is recommending the area of Scotchman within its bounds for wilderness, but the Kootenai National Forest has decided to designate the area “wild lands,” which has the same management prescription as wilderness. However, the wild lands designation lacks the agency’s recommendation for it to be declared wilderness.
Hough is hopeful the wildlands designation will not stick. And although the pending federal elections have put congressional courtship in a holding pattern, Hough said it gives the group time to develop other pockets of support.
“It really gives us the time that we need to make sure all the pegs of support are in place to build upon, and that’s really the important thing,” he said.