CLARK FORK — A proposal to firm up a wilderness designation for 13,900 acres in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests went through the wringer on Wednesday.
Supporters of the Scotchman Peaks wilderness proposal hosted a well-attended public meeting to discuss bringing permanency to the designation and its impact on accessing the area. The meeting follows U.S. Sen. Jim Risch’s announcement last month that he is introducing legislation formally establishing the Idaho portion of the wilderness area.
Despite claims making their way across the Internet, social media and over coffee, the designation would not prohibit hunting, fishing, hiking or huckleberry picking, according to Friends of Scotchman Peak and U.S. Forest Service officials.
The designation would, however, prohibit motorized vehicles and mechanical conveyances such as bicycles and carts used to pack out big game harvested by hunters.
The acreage contemplated in Risch’s bill dovetails with an existing recommended wilderness designation that was established through a lengthy forest management plan update for the Idaho Panhandle and Kootenai national forests, which was finalized in 2015.
As a result, a wilderness rule has been essentially been in effect since that time.
“We are not changing anything. We’re not closing an area,” said Sandy Compton, program coordinator for Friends of Scotchman Peaks.
The proposed legislation would make the wilderness permanent and binding upon future generations throughout perpetuity.
The broader Scotchman proposal also contemplates a wilderness designation of 48,000 acres in Montana, making it the first interstate wilderness area.
Friends of Scotchman Peaks has worked for more than a decade in piecing together a diverse mosaic of support from elected officials and the public, in addition to timber and mining companies.
Former Bonner County Commission Chairman Cary Kelly said boards skew conservative and don’t support wilderness proposals, but commissioners have over the years made an exception for Scotchman due to the unique beauty and challenging terrain, which complicates resource extraction.
“Scotchman Peaks, for the commissioners, is the exception to the rule,” said Kelly, who took to summiting Scotchman Peak with county employees as part of its wellness program.
Bob Boeh, vice president of government affairs for Idaho Forest Group, said the proposal would have no impact on its sawmill operations because there is ample timber on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests that is more suitable for harvest.
“There is some marginal timberland in the proposal,” said Boeh.
The wilderness set-aside amounts to one half of 1 percent of the 2.4 million acres of land within the IPNF.
But for some attending Wednesday’s meeting, it was one half of 1 percent too much.
“This is another layer of federal control. This is another federal land grab,” said Danielle Ahrens of the Idaho Redoubt, an arch-conservative blog which has come out against the proposal.
Others were concerned that the designation would prevent fire management activities, big game habitat restoration projects or rescues of injured forest users.
The designation may affect how projects are implemented, but it wouldn’t necessarily stop them from happening, according to Scotchman Peaks and Forest Service officials. Airlifting injured hikers or hunters would still be allowed under the designation.
Sheriff Daryl Wheeler said deputies would not be deterred by barriers they encounter on an emergency call.
“If there are gates there, we’re tearing (down) those gates,” said Wheeler.
Some argued they were being disenfranchised from the process because they had no say in it, although the forest planning process was the subject of numerous public meetings in which citizen input was gathered in an attempt to strike a balance between various forest user groups with conflicting goals.
“The reality is we can’t please everybody 100 percent,” said Sandpoint District Ranger Erick Walker.
Sid Smith, Panhandle regional director for Risch’s office, said the legislation is by no means a finished product and is meant to fully develop a dialogue with the public about the proposal. He added that legislation is neither being rushed nor forced.
“We are going to take our time with this,” said Smith.