Scotchman Peaks: Myths and facts (and compromise)

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

No matter if you are voting in favor of the Scotchman Peaks wilderness designation or against it, it’s  important to separate the facts from the myths. This sidebar attempts to take several claims made about the wilderness proposal and verify whether they were true, false, misleading or undetermined.

Several people contributed their opinions about this proposal: Phil Hough, the executive director of Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, is advocating for the wilderness while Bonner County Commissioner Dan McDonald has spoken against the wilderness designation. Erick Walker, the District Ranger for the Sandpoint Ranger District, was contacted to determine whether various claims are accurate or not.

The north side of Scotchman Peak, as seen from the air. Photo by Ben Olson.

“We’re apolitical,” Walker said, in explanation of the position the U.S. Forest Service has taken. “It’s because of the wishes of the public and input from our forest planning process that this became a recommended wilderness area. We are carrying forth the public desire.”

Claim #1:  This proposed wilderness is a “land grab” attempt by the federal government to take land away from people in the state of Idaho.

FALSE. The area known as Scotchman Peaks has been managed as National Forest since it was established by President Teddy Roosevelt on June 26, 1908. The Scotchman Peaks area is part of the Kaniksu National Forest under the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. Prior to 1908, Walker said many “unknown lands” in the forest reserve were managed under the Department of the Interior before they were later brought under the Department of Agriculture.

“As I understand, it was always part of the public domain,” said Walker.

DAN McDONALD: “I don’t agree with the ‘land grab’ philosophy. It’s federal land. The folks that say they are worried about development – it’s still federal land. No one is going to build homes up there. The idea of the ‘land grab’ claim is coming from the perspective of folks wanting land to go to Idaho, which I’m for, but it’s federal land.”

PHIL HOUGH: “Currently the land is public land managed by the National Forest, since they were created 100 years ago. Wilderness designation won’t change that. If it’s not designated, it won’t change. This isn’t a question about a transfer of land to the federal government.”

Claim #2: There will be little to no wildfire management in the wilderness area. When there are fires, the U.S. Forest Service will just “let them burn.”

MISLEADING. While many disagree on the level of management that is appropriate for any particular area, the U.S. Forest Service does manage for wildfire within wilderness areas, it’s just that they may use a lighter touch while doing so than in non-protected areas or areas near homes.

“Basically, a fire that starts anywhere on National Forest, regardless of whether it starts on recommended wilderness area or designated wilderness area, or close to homes, we have a fire management plan that directs us how we go about directing those,” said Walker. “Starts by humans as best we can tell when it starts, we have to suppress that fire. That’s what our fire management plan says. Fires that start by nature, we have more options. We can suppress it, implement a modified strategy and protect points at risk. We may allow the fire to serve its ecological function and serve its resource benefit, regardless of what land designation it is. We take in a lot of factors with how we respond to that fire; the time of year, conditions, what are we already managing. First and foremost is firefighting safety, of course. If a fire is in a place that’s not safe to engage the fire, we’ll step back and engage it at that point. That’s the first thing we ask ourselves, whether it’s wilderness, recommended wilderness or somebody’s backyard. If someone were to pass a wilderness proposal, that would not change. What would change is the authorities for who would allow what type of activities. For me as district ranger, I can say, if firefighters want to use chainsaws, put in pumps, helicopters, I don’t have that authority. The forest supervisor can then say, ‘You can use those types of tools, or use primitive tools for that type of fire.’ We’ve used crosscut saws and bladder bags, and I’ve seen dozers go into wilderness areas. The authority comes at a higher level, but it doesn’t change how we fight the fire.”

CLAIM #3: I will not be able to ride my snowmobile or snowbike within the wilderness area.

TRUE. The proposed wilderness area does not allow any mechanized access, (except Search and Rescue vehicles on an active mission and wheelchairs for people who require them for mobility). This includes mountain bikes, wheeled game carts, chainsaws or anything that is mechanized.

PHIL: “We’re not saying there has never been any snowmobile use (inside the proposed wilderness area). The main area is around Lightning Peak, which is in the Scotchman Roadless Area, not the wilderness area. The part that’s in the area is seldom used. Only recently they didn’t allow for snow machines to penetrate the area. The bigger picture is, 79 percent of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest is open to snowmobile use. There should be places snowmobiles can go and there should be also be places for quiet travel.”

DAN: “That area was a great place to snowmobile for years (prior to the 2015 forest plan limiting the use of snow machines). … The East Fork area was. There was an old wooden bridge there and it was a shame the Forest Service took it out. There was also an area north of that where (Friends of Scotchman Peaks) originally pulled back from because it was a big snowmobile area as well. They recognized that, and to their credit, they pulled back from that. But there are still quite a few people who would like to use that area. From an economic standpoint, frankly, the snowmobilers are going to spend more money locally than the hikers ever will.”

CLAIM #4: There will be no wildlife management within the proposed wilderness area.

FALSE. All wildlife, including game and fish, that reside within the state of Idaho come under the management of Idaho Fish and Game. However, while Idaho Fish and Game does manage all wildlife in the state, wilderness area or not, the tools they use and their methods may change depending on how the land is classified.

Chip Corsi, the regional supervisor for Idaho Fish and Game based in Coeur d’Alene, weighed in on this: “Let’s say it becomes a wilderness,” he said. “It can change our ability to use certain wildlife management tools depending on the interpretation of the land management act. So it’s not going to take away our ability to manage, but what it can change is the use of aircraft to monitor and put collars on animals. In the case of Scotchman Peak, we have goats up there that have exhibited habituation to humans to the point of a couple injuries over the last few years. To their credit, the folks at Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness have been working to educate people there. Maybe that’s reduced the likelihood of people going up there with a bag of chips or ears of corn, and maybe get bitten.”

A goat on Scotchman Peak last summer. Photo by Leslie Kiebert.

Corsi said, “Our legal interpretation of the wilderness act has been different from some managers. That is a cause for concern. It doesn’t mean all wildlife management ends because it becomes wilderness. We still stock wilderness areas with fish, we still set hunting and fishing seasons in wilderness areas. It’s just that we’ve seen where that has eroded our ability to use tools that are really important to manage those populations. That’s a nuance, and it’s a concern for us, but it’s not the same as no management.”

DAN: “I’m a big fan of forest management. If they are managed correctly, the water is cleaner, the wildlife better. A wilderness area, in reality, it’s not managed. … There’s a critical elk herd population up there, a critical mule deer population. If it goes wilderness, even though it’s technically managed as a wilderness area, it’ll present some problems with habitat management.”

PHIL: “The Wilderness Act and Scotchman Peaks wilderness act both say that in terms of wildlife, nothing in the act would impact the ability for the wildlife to be managed. The way they might approach it is somewhat different than other areas. They can manage in fact they do manage, and in fact are required to manage wildlife. … In the case of Idaho Fish and Game, a lot of the management tools they can use in wilderness areas provided they consult with land management agencies, go through minimal tool analysis, and they decide on what’s the least impactful method to achieve their objective. … It’s more difficult. It’s more challenging, but I think the extra step to requiring the management agencies to give careful consideration of the impact of their actions is a good thing to make sure that their actions will help to enhance the wilderness characteristics of the area.”

CLAIM #5: Search and Rescue teams will need to seek “permission” from the federal government to carry out rescue operations within a wilderness area.

MISLEADING. Sheriff Daryl Wheeler recently expressed his personal views against wilderness designation on the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. Wheeler claimed he would have to seek permission from the federal government to carry out a rescue operation, and furthermore, that there is a code that has the authority to prohibit the possession of firearms. Both claims are technically true, but misleading.

Walker said, “It’s debatable whether you could call it ‘permission’ or ‘coordination.’ Frequently what happens is that the local forest rangers, if this were to be designated wilderness, we would sit down with Sheriff Wheeler and his staff to develop a memorandum of understanding to describe how we would communicate and how the county and forest would work together on the sheriff’s ability to do search and rescue and law enforcement within the wilderness. … The Forest Service manages wilderness areas, but we do it in the spirit of cooperation with state and local governments. … We do not put up barriers to the sheriff or other EMS providers to go in and do their job.” (for Walker’s answer to the firearm code, see next claim).

CLAIM #6 : Hunting and fishing will both be allowed in the proposed wilderness area.

TRUE. There are no restrictions placed on hunting or fishing inside a wilderness area. Furthermore, according to Walker, “The use of firearms is totally appropriate in wilderness areas, as legal means to hunt and fish. Wilderness doesn’t change that. The retrieval of game using game carts would be prohibited, but we don’t restrict firearms. There is some obscure code of federal regulations (CFR) that says the Forest Service can restrict possession and use of firearms in wilderness, but we checked regionally, nationally and specifically in Idaho and we know of no instance where a local line officer or ranger has taken that CFR and put it forward. … That’s not in our forest plan, but Sen. Risch may be able to specifically address that in his legislation.”

DAN: “Guys in their 70s and 80s have been hunting that area since they were young. They shoot one now, and they can’t pack it out on a wheeled game cart. You get a heart for that, and you realize it’s disenfranchising folks from using it for more than just hiking.”

Alan Harper, a backcountry hunter and manager of four sawmills for Idaho Forest Group, said he is “fully in favor of this proposal, and that’s coming from a guy who buys 420 million board feet of lumber a year. … When my family and friends go hunting, we go in on horseback to get far enough away from the parking lot and the people that would want to walk. The fewer amount of people you have in the area, the less pressure you have on the wildlife, which makes it a more quality hunt. … By designating wilderness, it guarantees for me and my kids and my grandkids that it will always be there for a place to get away from the masses. … (Regarding the wheeled game cart usage) I think that it’s something that would be a good discussion point once we get past the advisory vote. … At the same time, I have a hard time believing there are very many people that are not physically capable of carrying a quarter that are going to hike back into that backcountry anyways, but who am I to say that you can’t?”

CLAIM #7: This wilderness plan discriminates against disabled people because it doesn’t allow wheelchair access inside a wilderness area.

FALSE. According to the Wilderness Act, “Congress reaffirms that nothing in the Wilderness Act prohibits wheelchair use in a wilderness area by an individual whose disability requires its use.” This means that manual or battery-powered wheelchairs or mobility devices are allowed with no restrictions.

CLAIM #8: A wilderness designation was proposed for the Scotchman Peaks area because it is an area completely untrammeled by man.

FALSE. There are many areas within the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness area that have been used by man prior to recommended wilderness designation. Prior to 2015, snowmobiles were allowed access inside the recommended wilderness area, and there are several access roads still in existence within the boundaries, though not maintained. There is also evidence of past logging operations inside the boundaries.

Ranger Walker said, “There is nothing in the Wilderness Act that says the land should show no signs that human existence was ever there. … The Wilderness Act doesn’t say man’s sign shouldn’t be there, but going forward, man’s presence is not there for more than an overnight stay.”

DAN: “There are many photos of the proposed area for Scotchmans that show logging roads, old clear cuts, etc. Up until 2015, mountain bikes, snowmobiles and other motorized and wheeled access was happening.”

CLAIM #9: Because of the “Heartbeat Rule,” only a certain number of people will be allowed to access the wilderness area at a time. 

FALSE. The so-called “Heartbeat Rule” is a common rule of wilderness areas, limiting group sizes to lessen the impact on the trail system, but not limiting access of how many groups may use the area at one time. The standard under the forest plan is 12 heartbeats, which includes stock. For example, five people on horseback with the family dog would count as 11 heartbeats. While group sizes are usually limited to 12 heartbeats, there is no rule or time period in effect that prohibits the next group of 12 heartbeats from following the first group. In other words, there may be any number of groups accessing the wilderness area, so long as the individual group sizes are under 12 heartbeats.

“To change this number, Sen. Risch could reflect a new group size within his legislation to be put into a new wilderness management plan,” said Walker. “In the absence of that, it would fall back to 12.”

DAN: “I think it shows the potential issue with restricted use. If you refer to a document the FSPW put out, they note a number of trails that have even tighter restrictions from the 12.”

Photo by Leslie Kiebert.

PHIL: “It’s not 12 heartbeats per day, it’s 12 per group. You can have any number of groups on the trail at any time. That’s done to limit the impact on the trail and environment. The intent is to provide for a greater sense of solitude on the trail, as well as impact on wildlife and individuals.”

CLAIM #10: There will be no resource extraction from the proposed wilderness area, including timber or ore extraction.

TRUE. “Nothing comes to mind where (the Forest Service) has established wilderness areas and we’ve gone in and done extractive uses,” said Walker. “There may be, with Rock Creek Mine, as an example, a proposal to take mineral resources from underneath, by approaching it outside the area and going in to take it out. As far as surface activities, though, that’s correct.”

PHIL: “Wilderness is about preserving timber. The timber that’s in the Scotchman Peaks is so remote and hard to get to that it’s not considered economically viable. The forest plan allocates small areas for wilderness – this one is one-half of one percent of all the land in Idaho.”

DAN: “The inability to extract is again another fallacy as we see evidence of past extraction as noted by the old logging roads and clear cuts. From what I’ve seen, ore extraction played out 100 years ago, however there is a great deal of timber in the proposed area that can and should be managed.”

CLAIM #12: There are no exceptions allowed with wilderness designations.

FALSE. Most wilderness designations have some form of exceptions written into the enabling legislation. In the Frank Church River of No Return, for example, the inclusion of an airstrip and the allowance for jet boat usage in the river are exceptions.

THOUGHTS ON POTENTIAL COMPROMISES

Sen. Jim Risch wrote in an op-ed to the Reader that he will rely on Bonner County voters to inform him whether to re-introduce the wilderness designation or not. “This bill was initiated by the Bonner County community and now, appropriately, its outcome will be determined by the community,” Risch wrote.

So what happens if you don’t want the wilderness designation and the vote passes “in favor?” If Sen. Risch is true to his word, he will re-introduce enabling legislation that attempts to formally declare the Scotchman Peaks area as wilderness. But there is the possibility for those who don’t favor the designation to lobby for potential exceptions on certain issues with Sen. Risch.

“As long as Sen. Risch puts in the enabling language for the bill to allow for something to happen, it’s possible,” said Walker. “If Sen. Risch says to allow game carts in (the wilderness) for example, then we would manage that accordingly. If the senator doesn’t have specific language with that, we couldn’t do that, as it would be in violation with the law. It really goes to that enabling legislation to what activities can or cannot occur.”

IS THERE A POTENTIAL FOR COMPROMISE?

DAN: “Right before I took office in 2017, I was contacted by a good sized group in Clark Fork concerned about Scotchman Peaks. … We came up with a starting point for compromise discussions. Our idea was to secure all of the scenic peak area down to a certain elevation, secure a trail, then give buffer zones to provide for an unencumbered hiking trail with no wheeled vehicles on it. … It accomplishes what they want, but it wouldn’t be wilderness. It’s missing the permanence which was a sticking point for a number of folks.”

PHIL: “This isn’t our wilderness proposal, it was a recommendation made by the Forest Service. We support the Forest Service’s recommendation. That’s a really important fundamental distinction for several reasons. We advocated for the entire 88,000 acres. This bill does not include all of that. It includes a portion of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest in Idaho. There are areas, significantly areas around Lightning Peak, that are in the roadless area but not in the wilderness proposal. So in that very real sense, there has been a compromise already in terms of what we’d like to see and what the forest plan recommends. We are supporting the forest plan because it is a compromise that was created during a 12-year process of forest planning with many stakeholders around the table looking at many resource values across the entire landscape. When you look at the big picture map of that 2.5 million acres (total acreage of IDPNF), 38 percent of it is open for suitable timber production, 79 percent is open for motorized, mechanized use over the snow. … There are places that should be protected as wilderness, and we believe the Scotchman Peaks is one of them. And at a mere 14,000 acres, it’s a fairly modest proposal. It’s already a compromised position. Dan will tell you about his compromise, but it’s not a compromise, it’s a proposal. It hasn’t gained the support of anyone other than he and the folks that put it together. It contains zero acres of wilderness, so it’s not a wilderness compromise. … It’s not been reviewed, as far as we can tell, by resource professionals. It hasn’t had the public vetting process. … You’d really have to open up the planning process again …  that process took 12 years, it was reviewed numerous times by the public, there were opportunities for public input both in meetings and written comment form, and it produced this result. So, to go back and say ‘Let’s look at it again,” doesn’t acknowledge the process that went on for more than a decade.”

What are your thoughts about the outcome of the advisory vote?

PHIL: “We’re hopeful for a positive outcome, and after the May 15 primary election, we’ll be moving forward to seeing a bill re-introduced for Scotchman Peaks.

DAN: “However the vote goes, that’s how we will go. We will sign a letter and ratify it if it passes. If opposed, we will oppose it. … The vote will give us a true picture. It’s the American way. It’ll be a fair way to determine what our position will be as commissioners. … Quite frankly, if it does get voted down, there’s still a place to come and look at the original compromise. I can’t guarantee that, but I wouldn’t have a problem looking to the opposition and helping to broker that deal.“

FINAL THOUGHTS:

DAN: “If anybody knows anything about me, it’s that I’m a big fan of balance and equal access. This (proposal) almost looks like a special favor. It’s almost 14,000 acres. That’s a big chunk. … With respect to Scotchmans, I can only speak for myself. Where there’s forest management, there’s value. When there is value, it’s much better cared for. I have 560 acres and we have forest management issues we plan for. We deal with erosion issues and bark beetles. … We take care of it and manage it. … If you’re passionate about it, get out and vote.”

PHIL: “Wilderness has economic value. Part of it is tourism. Part of it is the quality of life. … There are a number of economic studies out there … that touch on what makes western economies thrive. They have found a very direct correlation between the most prosperous rural western economies having some of their lands in a protected status like wilderness or National Parks. Those economies that are really thriving have that combination. Think about the big picture of that. We are fortunate here in Sandpoint and Bonner County to have a wonderful lake, a great ski hill, backcountry and places like the Scotchman Peaks – these things are economic drivers, these things attract business to grow and thrive here. Look at the businesses that are growing here to able to attract management talent, labor talent because we have this quality of life. … There are 47 light manufacturing companies located in Bonner County that are here in part because their owners and staff want to be in a place where we can enjoy that full range of quality of life. Wilderness is one part of that. It’s not the only one, but it’s one. When you look at that whole package, that’s what makes things drive – finding that balance.”

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