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Salmon-Challis National Forest wilderness assessment a call to arms for several groups

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Borah Peak

Peak baggers relax on the the summit of Borah Peak in central Idaho with several of the Lost River Range high points in the background. The Borah Peak area is one of several areas that are under consideration for wilderness designation in the new Salmon-Challis National Forest management plan.

The word wilderness can cause some people to wax poetic and others to swear a blue streak.

The recent work on a new Salmon-Challis National Forest management plan, which includes a new wilderness inventory and evaluation, has some stakeholders digging in their heels and others seeking common ground.

The Salmon-Challis National Forest began the process of making a new management plan in 2017. This plan covers all that the national forest is in charge of, such as ecosystems, watersheds, plant and animal communities, grazing, resource extraction, rivers and wilderness areas.

The development of the new plan is at the halfway point in a four-year process. Forest officials are gathering input on all areas, including its “Wilderness Inventory and Evaluation.” Salmon-Challis Forest Supervisor Charles Mark said there are 3 million acres in the National Forest that could be potentially considered for wilderness designation. Essentially all roadless areas on the National Forest can qualify, but realistically, lands need more qualities than that.

“We’re not looking at recommending that entire acreage as wilderness to Congress,” Mark said. “We’re working our way down till we get to the areas that actually have the wilderness character that would merit a wilderness recommendation.” On its website, the National Forest has posted a map of areas under evaluation and highlighting “Focal Wilderness Evaluation Areas.” (www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd606600.pdf)

Mark admits that the process has “people excited” — some in a positive and others in a negative way. The National Forest is currently taking public comments on the second phase of the wilderness process. Public comment on that phase ends Thursday . The first phase was inventory, second evaluation, third analysis and finally recommendation. At each step of the way, public comments are taken.

“I had a couple of well-attended local meetings in Salmon and Challis just before the holidays,” Mark said. “One way to describe how folks are feeling locally is that people are pretty concerned. A lot of the local people in and around the forest do not want to see any further restrictions on access or their ability to use the forest.”

challis sign

This sign stands at the Challis city limits. Assessing new wilderness land on the Salmon-Challis National Forest is part of the forest’s new management plan and has caused a tug-of-war between groups in favor and against new wilderness land designation.

At one of those Challis meetings, a majority of people in a crowd of about 120 stood up when someone asked how many in the audience were opposed to designating more wilderness acres, the Challis Messenger reported.

Wilderness designation comes with a certain set of restrictions: no motorized or mechanized means of travel, no use of chainsaws, no permanent shelters, no roads, no picnic tables, no toilets, no mining and no timber sales.

In the third phase of the process, Mark and specialists will analyze comments and recommendations and develop a range of alternatives for consideration. Expect a set of possibilities from no new wilderness, to all the prime areas recommended for wilderness designation. After the alternatives are published, public feedback will again be taken.

“My intent is to have that a compressed timeline because there’s so many folks that want to know,” Mark said. “I’m going to say probably the end of spring” the forest service will have areas selected for further analysis.

At the analysis stage of the process, all the stakeholders join the tug-of-war. Stakeholders know that once the forest recommends a specific area for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System, the forest will manage it as wilderness to protect its wilderness qualities in case Congress eventually designates it as wilderness. These wilderness study areas in effect become defacto wilderness.

Idaho legislators took aim at these wilderness study areas on Tuesday. The House Resources and Conservation Committee voted 10-7 to approve a House joint memorial urging Congress to remove hundreds of thousands of acres from wilderness study area designation in Idaho.

Republican Rep. Priscilla Giddings, who sponsored the bill, said Congress should remove the study areas to open the land up to industry and other uses. If approved by the House and Senate, the memorial legislation would be sent to federal officials asking Congress to act.

But there also is a groundswell of support for protecting certain areas in the Salmon-Challis National Forest under the Wilderness Act.

“If you look at all of the lands on the National Forest system in the country and take the lands that have yet to be designated wilderness and you say ‘which National Forest has the wildest remaining land that has yet to be considered for wilderness designation?’ No. 1 in the lower 48 states is the Salmon-Challis, even if you take out the Frank Church and the Jerry Peak Wilderness,” said Rob Mason, the central Idaho representative of The Wilderness Society.

The Wilderness Society is one of several stakeholders that have joined Central Idaho Public Lands Collaborative to offer input to the Salmon-Challis as it fashions its new management plan. Dozens of local stakeholders representing most aspects of interaction with the Salmon-Challis, such as grazing, boating, mining, outfitters, are represented. The National Forest officials are required to consider all input.

“These folks are showing up and putting in a lot of volunteer hours,” said Toni Ruth, of the collaborative. “It’s very impressive. They deliver that information to the forest supervisor. So there’s a dialogue instead of just a letter sent.”

Mason said part of the success of collaborative efforts is to focus on views the different stakeholders have in common.

“One of the viewpoints is people will say we want to just keep it the way that it is,” he said. “That’s a good starting point. So how do we do that in a way that satisfies local communities and strengthens local economies and also protects the values that exists on the landscape? I think there is a lot of common ground to be found there.”

Josh Johnson, a conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League, said stakeholders understand that not all of the Salmon-Challis is a candidate for wilderness designation.

“Ultimately National Forests have many different uses and certain parts of the forest are more suitable for wilderness and some more suitable for different type activities,” Johnson said.

That said, Johnson’s organization has a two pet areas it would like to see achieve wilderness status.

“Two places in particular really stand out,” he said. “One is the north side of the Pioneer Mountains. The southern half is in the Sawtooth National Forest and is already recommended for wilderness, and the area around Borah Peak in the Lost River Range. Those two areas we find to have exceptional wilderness character, a lot of scenic values, great wildlife habitat, opportunities for solitude and other things that fit the definition of wilderness character. These areas have been managed as wilderness areas since 1979.”

Still caught in the crossfire between various stakeholders are the Salmon-Challis Forest officials. Ultimately, the forest supervisor will issue a decision and not everyone will be happy.

“There are groups out there like The Wilderness Society looking at us as the last best place to designate more wilderness area,” Mark said. “I’ve already got two-thirds of the forest as wilderness. I’ve got local folks, range permittees, outfitter guides and others asking ‘Well Chuck, how much more wilderness do you need?’ That’s a good question and I don’t necessarily have an answer.”

For information on the Salmon-Challis National Forest wilderness plans, go to https://usfs.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=ac08187487ef4e42bbbd82804dde8147.

To comment on wilderness in general or to specific areas under consideration for wilderness designation, go to bit.ly/comments2019.

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