Whose Monument? 

De facts of de facto ownership

John Rember

Last month, as part of the Idaho Humanities Council's "Wilderness Considered" program in Hailey, I lectured on what we seek when we seek the wild. My thesis was that there are spiritual aspects of being human that only become apparent when we're safely distant from civilization. Since we were in an electrically heated classroom in a community whose economy rests on industrial tourism, I couldn't identify those spiritual aspects by pointing at them. The room, the Humanities Council sponsorship and the audience that had driven to the program in automobiles all ensured that any spiritual components of the wild could only be defined by default.

It was a most civilized evening. People were polite. Even I was polite, which is a good default if you're a Humanities Council Scholar.

My lecture was not so polite. It was about the toxic aspects of industrial tourism, which come into being, for example, when crowds of people experience the same high mountain lake: the wild disappears. It's smothered under tent floors. It's blackened by the charcoal of campfires. It's transformed by trails and photo points and the REI-engendered expectations of its visitors until it becomes another imperfect artifact of an imperfect civilization.

I talked about the tedium experienced by hunting guides, fishing guides or moonlight hayride guides. I talked about the elimination of real fish from our streams and rivers and their replacement by artificial hatchery rainbow, animals that will strike at any fly that looks remotely like a hatchery food pellet. I talked about the recreational real estate industry, which turns proximity to wilderness into fat commissions. I talked about how wolves, introduced to Idaho to restore the wild, have become intensely managed political animals morally indistinguishable from pound dogs.

Toward the end of the evening I talked about disputes over who owns Idaho's wild lands, and noted that the original meaning of Eden--a spiritual wild place where we're supposed to be able to walk with and talk to God--was "walled garden," which suggests that Adam and Eve didn't get kicked out because of that business with the apple. Instead, they had maxed out their credit cards in a place someone had gone to all the trouble to put a wall around. God owned the place, but you could forget about walking and talking with Him. He was huddled with His lawyers, accountants and marketing people over in corporate headquarters in Megiddo.

The idea of Eden as a moneymaker comes into sharp focus when framing the Boulder-White Clouds as a national monument.

In the most literal sense, a national monument is a frame: A boundary will be drawn around half a million acres. Admission will be charged. If those who work there are lucky, enough money will be appropriated from the treasury to improve inside-the-frame campgrounds, trails and roads. That money will build bridges, buy grazing rights, close roads and contract with private companies for garbage removal, camp hosts and fee collection.

What's inside the frame will be protected. Protected from whom is another question.

Carl Pence, a former Sawtooth National Recreation Area ranger, has written that existing legislation already protects the Boulder-White Clouds from serious threats. Last year, in an eloquent letter to the Idaho Statesman, he noted the National Forest Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the act that created the SNRA address any physical dangers facing the area.

Mining isn't going to happen, because if you enforce existing environmental and safety laws, even high-grade ores aren't economical to mine. (Castle Peak's molybdenum was profitable only because the federal government purchased it in the ground, as part of the establishment of the SNRA). We had 100 years of intense mining in Idaho, and the Boulder-White Clouds are still here, unspoiled except for a few antique attractions like Boulder City.

Grazing and salmon spawning beds are regulated. Motorized vehicle use is restricted to designated roads and trails. The high peaks are managed to maintain wilderness values. As Pence stated, "Additional legislation designed to provide additional protection presents an illusion [italics mine] of political progress."

Pushing for the "protections" of monument status present an opportunity to turn the Boulder-White Clouds into a wholly owned subsidiary of industrial tourism. It's no accident that two of the people in the Idaho Conservation League ads supporting monument status are a former executive director of the Ketchum-Sun Valley Chamber of Commerce and owner of the store where I buy my hiking boots. It's also no accident that the Pew Foundation, which gives the ICL much of its funding, mindlessly counts wilderness acres as a measure of its cultural colonization of the West.

Because resort-town gateways, ticket booths and developed campgrounds require discretionary income, the terrible threat that monument status will protect the Boulder-White Clouds from is poor people.

Assuming it happens, the new monument will be enlisted to reinflate the Wood River Valley's real estate bubble. You can expect it to be the subject of travel articles in The New York Times. You can expect it to be the rationale for hotels, guiding services and the tour buses of salmon-porn addicts. You can expect a sacrificial donut of development around it, and if that's too slow in coming, you'll hear cries for its designation as a National Park.

What you won't hear is discussion of the spiritual qualities of the Boulder-White Clouds, because those will have fled for less managed parts of Idaho, places that will soon resonate to relentless calls for their protection.

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