Salmon-Challis National Forest officials would like public comments by mid-February about a wilderness inventory and evaluation process that will shape any recommendation they make regarding future wilderness designation in the forest.
On the table is the possibility of designating anywhere from zero to 1.3 million additional acres of wilderness.
The majority of people in a crowd of about 120 at a Dec. 13 meeting in Challis stood up when someone asked how many in the audience were opposed to designating more wilderness acres. Many audience members told Forest Service officials they disagree with the agency’s process, which is one of elimination. Forest officials began by evaluating about 90 percent of the forest, about 1.3 million acres of areas with no roads, as possible new wilderness. If those acres do not meet wilderness criteria, they are eliminated, down to a final number that Forest Supervisor Chuck Mark will recommend to the Washington, D.C., office sometime in 2020.
After Mark makes his recommendation, it’s up to the chief of the Forest Service, the secretary of Agriculture and the president to do further review. Only Congress can designate new wilderness.
The Challis meeting started in a conference room at the Challis-Yankee Fork district offices that holds only a few dozen people and moved to the Challis Legion Hall to accommodate all the attendees. About 65 people showed up at another mid-December wilderness meeting in Salmon.
Salmon-Challis employees no doubt felt caught in between a rock and a hard place. They tried to explain to a skeptical Challis crowd that the current wilderness evaluation process was a policy mandated under a 2012 planning rule and several laws including the National Forest Management Act and the Wilderness Act of 1964. It’s part of an effort to revise outdated forest plans written in the mid-1980s for an area that was previously the separate Challis and Salmon national forests. Plan revision includes looking at wild and scenic river designation and management of species of conservation concern, such as plants and animals listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The Salmon-Challis forest began its forest plan revision a year ago and has held public meetings to explain the process. Josh Milligan, forest plan revision team leader, said he’s attended about 40 meetings in the central Idaho communities of Salmon, Challis, Mackay, Arco and Hailey.
Public comments on the wilderness evaluation process are due by mid-February, and that deadline might be extended if the current partial federal government shutdown continues much longer.
Online comments may be posted on the Salmon-Challis National Forest’s website under the forest plan revision tab. Or people can email Milligan at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 208-756-5560 once the shutdown ends.
In their presentation, Milligan and Jeff Hunteman, regional wilderness coordinator from the Forest Service’s intermountain region office in Ogden, Utah, said there are about 1.3 million acres of wilderness now on the Salmon-Challis forest, along with 174,000 acres of recommended wilderness in current plans.
A total of 2,790,000 acres has been inventoried for possible wilderness. The wilderness evaluation process began last year and identified all areas of the forest not protected and then eliminated from consideration areas with roads and major infrastructure such as power lines. The remaining areas include those of 5,000 acres or more for possible wilderness consideration. Forest officials are evaluating whether it’s practical to manage some of those small areas as wilderness. Suitability of those areas as wilderness versus multiple use activities such as mining, timber harvest and livestock grazing is taken into account. Forest officials also consider that the Salmon-Challis already has about 1.3 million acres of wilderness, which may be enough, Milligan said.
“Will areas proposed as wilderness be put to a public vote?” one person asked at the Challis meeting. No, said Milligan.
“If we create more wilderness, we discriminate against the handicapped and elderly” and disabled veterans, who can no longer go there, former Custer County Commissioner and area rancher Cliff Hansen said at the end of the Challis meeting.
“As we create more wilderness we eliminate those people from seeing any of it. We have more wilderness in this area right now than we need and the more we do this, the more we discriminate.”
Forest Service employees handed out note cards so people could write down questions. There wasn't time to answer all of them, but officials said they would include written questions and answers on the forest plan revision section of the Salmon-Challis forest’s website.
When asked if RS-2477 roads are included in any of the wilderness study, Hunteman said he doesn’t have a list of county roads but that some are no doubt on the wilderness evaluation map.
A major consideration of wilderness suitability is roads, forest officials say. The Salmon-Challis has 1,470,000 acres bisected by roads and 1,320,000 acres without roads. That’s how the maximum figure for the recommendation of up to 1.3 million additional wilderness acres was reached.
Several people wondered why the forest was wasting time on the current wilderness evaluation since the topic has been studied extensively since the 1980s.
“We can’t just jump to an answer,” Milligan said. “We have to go through a process. If we don’t follow that process we’re not meeting the legal requirements, and we get into legal trouble for that reason. Part of process is all about what has changed. Maybe nothing has changed. But every time a forest revises its plan, it triggers this process. We don’t have the option of not going through the process.
“This is something we do as an agency, directed to do by the chief of the Forest Service,” Milligan said. “Local forest staff can’t say they’ll disregard the policy."
A thorough socio-economic study will be conducted, Milligan said.
If the Forest Service can’t keep up with existing wilderness trails, how will it maintain more? “That’s definitely a consideration,” Hunteman said, adding that going to non-motorized trails makes management and maintenance a bit more difficult.
Paul May of Clayton wondered if financial considerations could stop additional wilderness.
“Yes, absolutely it can,” Hunteman said. “There are many other issues. We will look at what opportunities would be foregone by wilderness,” he said, such as mining. The area in Panther Creek drainage where Idaho Cobalt Project’s new mine is under development has been excluded from wilderness because it’s the only proven source of cobalt, a strategic mineral, in the United States.
The Forest Service is supposed to manage for multiple use, not just wilderness one person pointed out.
“That’s true,” Hunteman said. “Unfortunately, the multiple use sustained yield act is not an acre-by-acre designation.” The agency must manage for multiple uses across the forest as a whole, not on every acre.
Several people, including Yankee Fork resident, miner and surveyor Darr Moon, said the map showing the areas inventoried and being evaluated for wilderness is misleading because many people have misinterpreted the marked areas as already-recommended wilderness.
That could scare off investors and hurt the local economy, Moon said. Mining companies don’t know whether they’ll be allowed to have a mine inside a wilderness evaluation area.
One question was whether the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness isn't enough wilderness in this area. About 1.3 million acres of that wilderness area are on the Salmon-Challis, Milligan said, with more of its 2,366,757 acres on five other Idaho forests.
“It is large,” Milligan said. “In this process, we consider what wilderness opportunities are already available on the forest. It’s kind of a supply issue relative to how much demand there is.” Knowing that the largest forested wilderness area in the lower 48 states is here on this forest is a big consideration, Milligan said.
Another person asked if the Forest Service is cooperating with Idaho Department of Fish and Game about loss of revenue because of loss of hunting access to wilderness. Milligan meets with Fish and Game personnel every month.
Other issues were voiced before the wilderness meetings in Challis and Salmon, forest officials said, including firewood gathering in wilderness, temporary access roads, unauthorized roads, difficulties in managing “cherry stem” roads bisecting wilderness areas, travel loop opportunities, problems doing post-fire rehabilitation in wilderness, forgone timber harvest, negative effects on other use, withdrawal of areas from mining, too many regulations and protections, managing isolated blocks of wilderness, access to and maintenance of range improvements such as watering troughs, banned activities such as rock hounding and access and effects on private land inholdings.