A Boutique Wilderness 

How Mike Simpson failed the White Clouds

Last July, I left the trailhead at the end of Fourth of July Road in Idaho's White Cloud Mountains, hiked past Fourth of July Lake and Born Lakes, climbed the headwall above Born Lakes, and traversed above Shallow and Scree lakes to Windy Devil Pass above the Little Boulder Lakes. I was accompanying my friend Sean Petersen, who had left a pair of binoculars on Windy Devil on a backcountry ski trip the winter before. We found the binoculars, then dropped down into the Little Boulders, hiked over another pass into the Big Boulder drainage and walked down to the Livingston Mill trailhead. We arrived seven hours after we had begun hiking.

It had been a long day, but not a particularly hurried one. We had taken photos and done some glissading, and had eaten a leisurely lunch in the sun on the green shore of a lake only half-melted out of winter.

We had gone by Castle Peak, traversed under White Cloud Peak, skirted close to the Big Boulder Lakes and gazed across three miles of crystalline air to O'Calkens Peak and Railroad Ridge, on the northwest end of the range.

The White Clouds aren't that big, if two old guys can walk through them in a day. In light of the failure of Rep. Mike Simpson's Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act and the Idaho Conservation League's current campaign to have President Barack Obama designate the area a national monument, I think that Simpson missed a bet back in 2004. He could have introduced legislation designating 40,000 acres of the White Clouds as wilderness. Period. No strings attached.

Then he could have gone on to entirely unrelated things, like attending to the economic health of his Central Idaho constituents.

Instead, Simpson invited all sorts of interest groups to the federal table. As is the custom at that table, folks got greedy. Ranchers wanted big money for grazing rights that had been given to them in the first place. The Idaho Conservation League wanted hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness, much of it in the form of buffer lands that effectively reserve the wild for the few, the fit and the fanatic. The Blue Ribbon Coalition wanted motorized corridors. Disabled persons wanted wheelchair-safe trails in the wilderness. The city of Challis wanted federal land. Custer County wanted federal money and more federal land.

In the nuttiest provision of the bill, a public-owned meadow just north of Stanley was to be given to the county to be sold to developers. The developers would build trophy houses. The trophy houses would generate property tax dollars. I've watched as Stanley and its suburbs have poured more property tax into Custer County coffers than they've gotten back in county services, so I understand the impulse. But it's foolish to think you'll get more than you spend from the owners of trophy houses, who are adept at getting whatever expensive governmental services they want.

The worst aspect of CIEDRA was that it would have weakened the 1964 Wilderness Bill by trading wilderness designation for payoffs to interest groups.

The worst aspect of national monument designation would be that the White Clouds would be micro-managed and mega-regulated by the U.S. Park Service. The Park Service, compared to the Forest Service, is a paramilitary crowd-control organization whose operating philosophy is a cheerful totalitarianism--and it's only cheerful until you cross it.

Simpson could still introduce a bill for a small, high-quality wilderness, one minus the kowtows to interest groups. Forty-thousand acres won't preserve an ecosystem--not that anything will, in these days of lethal jet-stream anomalies--but it would bring all the economic benefits of a larger wilderness to surrounding communities.

Wilderness designation is a human artifact. It's not the same thing as preserving the wild, but it does attract people to areas of natural beauty. When young people raised by screens are placed in a natural setting, they eventually learn to conduct object relations with real objects. When people visit a place mostly untouched by civilization, they take better care of the places they go home to. Wilderness is good for humans, even when they can't use it as an excuse to extort dollars from the federal government or from donors.

I have left the Boulder Mountains out of this discussion, but the Boulders are doing a good job of preserving themselves. They remain wild because they're high, dry, windy, rocky and contain few lakes or tree-lined trails. They contain no timber worth sawing down, and what profitable minerals they did contain were mined out long ago.

When I was a wilderness ranger in the Boulders and White Clouds in 1971, I ran into a hiker at the Bowery Guard Station on the east fork of the Salmon River. He was an ambitious young guy who had just hiked through the Boulders. He had started at the North Fork of Wood River above Ketchum, climbed 11,600-foot Glassford Peak and walked out Ibex Creek, a place of sere and severe beauty whose creek bottom is best described as a five-mile-long pile of avalanche debris.

He hadn't made it in seven hours. His leather hiking boots were shredded. His clothes were ripped and torn. His face was burnt and smoke-blackened from sitting over a campfire through an unplanned night out. But he had encountered the wild, and in no uncertain terms.

He said he would remember it for a lifetime, and cherish the memory, but one night in Ibex Creek was enough. He was happy to hear that the White Clouds had trails and signs and the occasional wilderness ranger to point the way to civilization the next time daylight threatened to run out before the trip did.

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