A local outfitter's plan to build 10 homes on a five-acre parcel has prompted a cease-and-desist order from the Forest Service. Paul Reis, manager of the Sawtooth recreation area, has called both that development and a proposal for 20 homes on 160 acres "illegal."
Viewed as a national experiment when it was set aside by Congress in 1972, the 754,000-acre Sawtooth was formed with a two-fold purpose: to protect the recreational and environmental values of the Sawtooth, White Cloud, Boulder and Smokey mountains and to preserve open space and the "pastoral" character of the valleys below.
Both proposed subdivisions would violate the recreation area's charter, Reis says.
But Dan Strand, a fishing and river outfitter, says Custer County has already approved his development, and he does not need the Forest Service's approval. That's because the agency never bought a scenic easement from him, he says, and in Custer County there are no zoning regulations.
"The Forest Service tries to scare you, but what they're doing is out and out lying," he says. "If the government wants to condemn my property, fine. Otherwise, this is something that shouldn't be any of their concern."
To preserve open space in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, the Forest Service has spent about $50 million to buy 78 scenic easements on 90 percent of the private land. The funding pipeline for such purchases ran dry in 1989, reflecting intense national competition for limited funds. In the Sawtooths, about 250 private parcels remain unencumbered by easements, and it may cost at least $50 million to finish the job.
Rep. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, successfully led efforts this year to obtain $800,000 for scenic easements to halt development. The stop-gap measure was included in an omnibus spending bill with the support of Idaho Republican Sens. Dirk Kempthorne and Larry Craig, but it's a drop in the bucket.
While Idaho's congressional delegation has vowed to deliver more funds for scenic easements, the development conflicts raise larger issues. Although off-shore oil drilling revenues pump about $900 million into the Land and Water Conservation Fund every year, Congress has been siphoning the funds for deficit reduction and other federal programs, leaving only about $200 million a year for easements and parks.
Bob Piva, a rancher who wants to subdivide 160 acres, says he is willing to drop his development plans in return for a scenic easement, but $800,000 "would maybe buy one lot."
Relations between private landowners and the Forest Service have been increasingly strained. The Forest Service's land-use policies are seen by some as unduly restrictive and heavy-handed.
Piva was one of several cattle ranchers forced to reduce his herd by 66 percent in the Stanley Basin in 1993 to protect endangered salmon and keep cows out of campgrounds. The reductions ruined the economics of running cows in the Stanley area, Piva says, and forced him to become a land developer.
That decision underscores how grazing cutbacks can result in land sales and the coming of condos - the very thing that the Sawtooth recreation area was supposed to prevent.
On the other hand, J. Robb Brady, a longtime landowner in the Sawtooth recreation area, says the Forest Service hasn't been vigilant enough in monitoring new developments and protecting scenery.
"Where I fault them is they don't like to be policemen," Brady says. "With personnel cutbacks, they haven't been doing enough monitoring, and I can show you a few places where developments have been built."
Another critic is Bethine Church, the widow of the late Sen. Frank Church, R-Idaho. In a guest editorial published in two Idaho newspapers she called subdivisions within the federal recreation area a "crime."
"It is exactly what the Sawtooth National Recreation Area was created to prevent. I can't believe Idaho's members of Congress and the U.S. Forest Service would allow this," she wrote.
Church is pushing for a series of summit meetings on the future of the Sawtooth recreation area next spring. In 1997, the preserve will be 25 years old.
"The Forest Service has been caught in a catch-22," she says. "There's got to be a way that we can bring the people together. To me, it's a challenge for the ages."
The writer works out of Boise, Idaho.
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