Roadless, But Not Friendless 

Urbanites stick up for primitive areas

Dear Ada County Commissioners,

There's a thin line between urban and rural Idaho. Just try to imagine our urbanized county without a rural backdrop. As Jeff Barney put it, "People don't live in Idaho because they enjoy the drive between Boise and Mountain Home. The outdoors are part of our heritage."

A county line or two between our neck of the woods and Idaho's rural forests and desert countryside can't keep us from loving the land and rooting for roadless areas. We just wish we could have all come together to discuss the future of the state's roadless lands. After all, this land is our land.

Sincerely,

Ada City Slickers Without Borders

That was the message area conservationists recently sent at a public meeting Ada County Commissioners didn't want to hold. Conservation leaders wrote a letter to Ada County Commissioners asking them to hold a public meeting so that area residents could learn more about Idaho's roadless areas and comment on their future. The commissioners never replied in writing to the December 14 letter, according to the Idaho Conservation League.

The 2001 National Roadless Rule that included provisions to prevent the construction of new roads and commercial logging was overturned in 2004 by a new rule that gives governors the opportunity to petition the federal government to amend management of roadless areas. Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne asked county commissioners to take the lead in gathering public comment on roadless management from their constituents. Kempthorne plans to use those comments to craft a petition to the federal government, according to Jim Caswell, director of the state Office of Species Conservation.

The majority of the 30 Idaho counties with roadless areas within their boundaries held hearings and gathered public input on management plans. But conservationists said Ada County Commissioners' decision not to hold a meeting could have left local residents out of the public process.

"It's been hit-or-miss when it comes to gathering Idaho's public input on roadless areas. And they missed the Boise area," said Scott Stouder, Trout Unlimited's Idaho roadless coordinator. The comment process essentially puts the responsibility for gathering input on the shoulders of Idaho's county commissioners, say Idaho Conservation League members. They say that the absence of an Ada County public meeting could have omitted Ada residents from the process and created a void in the data that would help shape Kempthorne's petition. And counties are fast approaching the March 1 deadline to submit those comments.

"While we recognize that the timeframe is short, we feel that it is critical that the residents of Ada County be given the opportunity to voice their concerns and ideas," Idaho Conservation League and Trout Unlimited representatives wrote in the letter.

The Conservation League eventually received a verbal response from the commission, according to conservation associate Jonathan Oppenheimer. "They saw it more as a rural issue than an urban issue."

"The Board of Ada County Commissioners received one inquiry regarding the public hearing process as it relates to the Roadless Wilderness initiative and its potential impact on Idaho's federally managed forest land. Because this initiative does not impact any land within Ada County, the decision was made not to hold any public hearings on the matter," the commissioners wrote in response to BW's request for comment.

But Ada County residents say they wouldn't be the same without rural roadless areas. "Every spring in Boise, cars sprout roof racks and those roof racks sprout kayaks and bikes," said James Piotrowski, president of the Ted Trueblood chapter of Trout Unlimited. And those cars often pass city limits and head to rural Idaho and stop at roadless stretches.

Commissioners Judy Peavey-Derr, Rick Yzaguirre and Fred Tilman noted that many outdoor enthusiasts call Ada County home. Still, "We also feel very strongly that this issue should be handled within the counties that would be most impacted by a roadless designation. Think of it this way, it would be like asking residents in Valley County to hold public hearings on Ada County's transportation plan," they wrote.

Caswell agreed that counties face no mandates to hold public meetings on the issue, but added, "Just because a public hearing wasn't held in Ada County doesn't mean county residents can't express their opinions about roadless designation. Remember, the request to hold public hearings on this issue was not a mandate from the state, but citizens can submit written testimony on the issue, ensuring their opinions are made part of the official record. We are confident local outdoor enthusiasts will do just that."

And the enthusiasts did just that. They figured if county leaders wouldn't hold an official meeting, they'd hold their own, to ensure that those who care about what happens in the state's roadless neck of the woods would have their say on the public record. So announcements went out, and at least 100 some people showed up February 9 to Ada County's one and only public hearing on the future of Idaho's most remote wilderness.

"This is democracy in action," said Bill Geer with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Around Geer, people roamed about the Idaho Historical Museum meeting room. Some looked at maps detailing large tracks of green undivided by the lines of pavement. Some picked up brochures and wrote comments. Others appeared before a camera to tape a personal message for Kempthorne. "If people don't speak up, decisions will be made for them," Geer said.

The roadless issue has polarized Idaho for the better part of the last 40 years. The issue still divides Idahoans who clash over how to manage the largest expanse of roadless area in the lower 48. Some industrialists see a gold mine when they look at a map of areas devoid of roads. Some disabled advocates see roads as their access into Idaho's rugged wilderness. And there's some who look at satellite photos of the state, see a huge blank spot unobstructed by lights or lines, and smile.

Most of the folks at the meeting said they'd like to see the middle of a map of Idaho stay blank. In those blank spots, they see stories and beauty a map or a road could never show. Speakers representing hunting, conservation and recreation interests said that in the green vastness they see a land that is anything but blank.

Had commissioners held a county sponsored meeting they would have heard Holly Endersby tell them to close their eyes. "Think of the most serene place you've ever been," the outdoor writer asked. "You're not at the freeway; you're not at the mall." Some in the audience said they found themselves at the banks of a remote alpine lake, under the shadows of rugged mountain peaks, inhaling the smell of ponderosa pine. "Idaho has what other states lost long ago," Endersby said.

Speakers challenged attendees to use their voices to protect roadless areas that many call their playground, hunting grounds, paddle parks--a place of escape, where bucks grow big and water runs through natural filters. Endersby's call was simple: "Tell Governor Kempthorne not to trash our treasure by slashing and wounding our lands with roads."

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