Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the status of certain parts of the Boulder-White Clouds region.
STANLEY — Viewed from the summit of 11,814-foot Castle Peak, the scope and beauty of the Boulder-White Clouds region comes suddenly into focus.
A dozen lakes dot the landscape below. Jagged ridgelines and scree fields trail endlessly into the horizon, and a few snow patches linger in the shadows late in the summer. From this height, there is no trace of a human presence.
In August 2015, President Barack Obama signed legislation protecting 275,665 acres of this rugged expanse as wilderness, ending decades of debate over what should become of the remote central Idaho region.
Many saw the law, spearheaded by Rep. Mike Simpson, as a monumental achievement for Idaho conservation, and one of Simpson’s crowning legislative achievements. But it also has drawn plenty of criticism, from those who saw their recreational pursuits limited, and others who argued the protections didn’t go far enough.
The Post Register last month spent a weekend exploring part of the new wilderness area, gathering perspectives on the new wilderness designation from backcountry users, land managers as well as nearby residents of Stanley. A year after Obama signed the bill, many say they are still trying to determine what the new protections will mean over the long term.
“The one theme I’ve heard from people is, ‘Finally,’” said Ed Cannady, the U.S. Forest Service’s Boulder-White Clouds backcountry recreation manager. “That kind of shows how many people love the place, and really care about the place.”
A step back
The controversy over the Boulder-White Clouds goes back half a century. In the late-1960s, an Arizona mining company planned to build a massive open-pit molybdenum mine, which would have swallowed an entire valley and large chunks of Castle and Merriam peaks.
Cannady, who has managed the area for 40 years, said it would have been the worst possible outcome. “This place means too much to me to have bulldozers rape the place,” he said.
That plan was met with widespread opposition, and was eventually abandoned.
For the next few decades, the Boulder-White Clouds hung in limbo. An effort was launched to create a national park, but it fell through. The creation of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in 1972 added some protections, but there was no wilderness area created to protect the Boulder-White Clouds as there was for the Sawtooth Range.
Many proposed bills set out rules to protect the area, but all failed to gain traction.
The issue was finally pushed to a head by a threat that Obama would use the Antiquities Act to designate a national monument in the area. The Antiquities Act allows a president to designate national monuments without approval from Congress, and Obama has used it more than two-dozen times. The idea was unpopular due to the fear that local input wouldn’t be considered.
Simpson had already been working for years with a variety of groups — ranchers, environmentalists, motorized users, local officials — to find some deal that would satisfy all sides.
There was no question in Simpson’s mind that there would be a national monument unless they could reach a formal deal.
“It was not a bluff,” he said in an interview this week. “They would have done it, and they were ready to do it.”
The act signed into law last year created the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness, the White Clouds Wilderness and the Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness, collectively and unofficially referred to as the Boulder-White Clouds. Another 155,000 acres were released from wilderness study areas with a promise to preserve multiple-use management.
It preserved dirt bike access on trails that had previously been open to two-wheeled vehicles, and all roads remained open to trucks and ATVs. It also left many trails open for mountain bikes. Ranchers with grazing rights could decide whether to allow environmental groups to buy out their allotments. And it set aside $5 million for Custer County for a community center, health clinic, emergency services and highway improvements.
For Simpson, it was a legacy-making legislative accomplishment. Commentator David Adler said it had cemented his position as “one of the titans of Idaho’s political history.”
It’s been a little more than a year since Obama signed the act, and locals and backcountry users have mixed reviews.
One of the most frequently discussed topics is lingering frustration over the closure of two popular mountain bike trails, Castle Divide and Ants Basin (sometimes called Antz Basin).
“It’s one of those epic days (on the bike),” mountain biker and backpacker Terry Patterson said of Ants Basin.
Patterson rode the trail just before the law took effect. However, he said the closure isn’t the biggest deal in the world — there are plenty of other great places to ride in this part of the state.
Cannady, the recreation manager, is also an avid mountain biker, and years ago helped build the Castle Divide Trail. But he’d seen more and more mountain bikers on the two trails in recent years, and many had stopped obeying basic trail etiquette, he said.
While officials were lenient in allowing mountain bikers to continue riding on the trails last year, now that the wilderness signs are up the new rules are being strictly enforced, Cannady said.
Charlie Thompson, who has run the Riverwear outdoor gear shop in Stanley since 1989, said he didn’t see the purpose of the wilderness designation. The region was already being well managed for multiple recreational uses under the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, he said, and most people in Stanley just wanted it left as-is.
He also worries that, inside the wilderness area, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials will be more apt to let wildfires run wild, rather than controlling them immediately.
Before the designation some locals said the Boulder-White Clouds was a relatively unknown and little-traveled range, and they had hoped to keep it that way. Tourists mostly went west to the Sawtooths, rather than heading east to places such as Fourth of July Creek, Germania Creek and Chamberlain Basin.
Many say there has been explosive growth in the number of visitors to the area and neighboring towns like Stanley — especially this summer — though it’s hard to know how much of that to attribute to the novelty of a new wilderness area.
Some say the booming numbers mostly have to do with low gas prices, a healthy economy and tourists slowly starting to discover central Idaho as a whole. Whatever the case, officials say it is creating a strain on the community, which doesn’t have enough space to house all the seasonal employees who flood Stanley in the summer.
“There definitely has been an increase in visitors, but I don’t know how much of that has had to do with the Boulder-White Clouds,” said Ellen Libertine, coordinator for the local chamber of commerce.
Cannady said he has seen a spike in visitation, but suspects some of the immediate excitement will wear off with time. Some of the growth in hikers and backpackers has also been offset by mountain bikers no longer being allowed, he said.
“It’s going to take a few years to play out to see if the wilderness attracts more tourists,” Thompson said.
Cannady said the biggest value of the wilderness designation is long-term protection for species that thrive in this high-altitude environment. It is a region where, in the face of encroaching climate change, certain animals and plants will “make their last stand.”
Steelhead, pikas, and the white bark pine trees thrive here, to name a few. Two years ago, Cannady recalled watching four wolverines for more than an hour — “one of the highlights of my life.”
“They need these intact, healthy, high-elevation ecosystems (to survive),” he said. “Wilderness ensures places like that will persist.”
In late August, Simpson made his first trip into the Boulder-White Clouds since he sealed the deal and Obama signed the bill into law.
He made the hike into Chamberlain Basin, along with Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Cannady and several others. Filled with alpine lakes and stunning views of iconic Castle Peak, Chamberlain Basin has been base camp for many of Simpson’s trips over the years.
A week before, as he was scouting out campsites to take the group of officials, Cannady recounted his first trip with Simpson into the White Clouds range a decade earlier. The weather was awful. Snow and sleet were falling as the wind whipped their camp in the shadow of Castle Peak.
Cannady was huddled under a tarp cooking dinner as evening set in. He saw Simpson, apparently impervious to the cold, standing out in a nearby meadow wearing shorts and a poncho. Simpson called him out into the gale.
“Have you ever seen anything as beautiful as that?” Simpson exclaimed as he stared up at storm clouds snaking their way between Castle Peak’s soaring crags.
“No,” Cannady replied. “I haven’t.”
“It was gorgeous,” Simpson recalled this week. “I’ve always liked storms.”
There’s much yet to do. A new mountain bike trail from Redfish Lake to Stanley has to be built. Long-term management plans for the area aren’t expected to be finished for another year. One voluntary buy-out of an area rancher has closed, but others are still up in the air.
“We’ll get all that done,” Simpson said.
Simpson said he’s comforted by the knowledge that in 50 or 100 years, the White Clouds will be just as they are today.
“Your children, your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren will be able to enjoy it just like we do,” he said.
For those who opposed the wilderness protection, Simpson recommends a trip into Chamberlain Basin.
“When you hike in there, you stop and look around and say, ‘I get it.’”
Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.