Uphill Battle: Proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness Area Grows Controversy 

A proposed North Idaho wilderness hangs on bureaucracy, politics and old habits

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Over the Line

If designation for the Scotchmans was passed through Congress and signed by the president, it would be the first federally protected tract of wilderness in Idaho's nine northernmost counties. And while the decision whether to protect the Scotchmans as a wilderness ultimately lies with Congress, all politics are local and that's where the Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness have chosen to draw their lines.

"The art of politics is the art of what's possible. For it to succeed, it would have to be a part of what's possible," Hough said. "Ultimately, the process we're best at is raising the support for it to a point that it becomes apparent to decision makers--both local and in the congressional delegation--that this is what the people want."

Indeed in its six years as an organization the Friends of the Scotchmans has managed to assemble a diverse coalition on both sides of the border. One of its key partners is the Idaho Conservation League, headquartered in Boise.

"When they started their campaign at the Friends of the Scotchman Peaks, there were probably few people even in Bonner County who knew where Scotchman Peaks was," said Brad Smith, who works with ICL at its North Idaho office in Sandpoint. "I think Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness have done a great job really getting people aware and understanding of why it's important to protect."

The group undertakes a range of outreach efforts, from guided hikes, outdoor painting excursions and seminars, up to biological surveys of the area's wildlife. Most recently, Idaho Fish and Game collaborated with the Friends of the Scotchmans on a study of rare forest carnivores and found evidence of fishers, lynx and wolverines. Looking beyond the North Idaho region, the group is currently pursuing a grant from Zoo Boise to further its wolverine study, and announced earlier this month that it was being considered as a finalist.

Conservation and recreation groups on both sides of the border have flocked to the cause as well, and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has endorsed the group. Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's opposition to expanding Idaho wilderness is well known, however.

"I don't know that we will ever convince him that wilderness is a good thing, and in the larger political context, of course, you'd like his support," Hough said. "We don't expect him to support it, but if we have broad public support, at least he won't oppose it."

Hough is still optimistic. While the road has been long, he's starting to see real potential for congressional action.

"I think we have such broad public support, and these issues are being taken seriously by Congress," he said. "It wouldn't be unreasonable to think that something could happen in the next session."

The Friends' efforts have not gone unnoticed by members of the Idaho delegation, including Sen. Mike Crapo, who was instrumental in pushing the Owyhee Initiative through the Senate in 2009, establishing the Owyhee-Bruneau Wilderness.

"We have a really steady conversation with Phil [Hough], and the one thing that Crapo has said to Phil and the board--and as recently as last month--is that, 'You guys are doing it right,'" said Lindsay Nothern, Crapo's Boise-based press secretary. "What they're trying to do is build a broad consensus in the community for the land-use changes that they're seeking to make. By and large, when we hear people in Idaho say, 'Gee I don't want wilderness,' or 'I don't like wilderness,' they're not talking about the Scotchman Peaks."

Nothern is a little less sanguine about the chances for action in the near future, though.

"The timing has to be right. We can do everything right in Idaho but we still have to have the right timing in Washington," he said. "Right now not much of anything is moving, the situation is so polarized in Washington ...

"There's just a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid," Nothern added. "A lot of people feel like we have enough federal ownership, and without strong, fairly unified support on the ground, it's going to be tough to move any wilderness designation forward."

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