Boy Scout habitat takes a hit in Idaho


The US Forest Service maintains habitat for endangered owls and salmon -- so why is the agency retreating when it comes to habitat for Boy Scouts?

Today, the Idaho Panhandle National Forest is reviewing its forest plan, including its plan for one of the most special places it manages -- the Mallard-Larkin Area. Mallard-Larkin is a local secret -- canyons of ancient cedar, rushing streams and alpine tarns full of trout, all connected by rocky trails well suited to the hiker and horse-packer.

It is prime habitat for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. I know because I was one of the former. Each summer of my teens, my troop disappeared into the mountains for a week, most often in the Mallard-Larkin.

Decades later, the memories are vivid: an unruly mob of grubby adolescents, provisioned with pocketknives, bedrolls and fishing rods. Our scoutmaster, a former WWII Marine and pro-football player named Carl Kiilsgaard, narrowly prevented us from igniting forest fires or getting gored by mountain goats. 

We Tenderfeet got lost and got blistered -- but learned an awful lot and have memories we exchange on Facebook decades into middle age.

For many of us, wilderness remains an important benchmark, a dose of “reality” when life needs a reality check.

We don’t manage national forests for nostalgia -- but for providing the most good for the most people, over the long haul. In the past 10 years, Idaho has seen population growth that equals another Boise and another Pocatello. Those folks deserve a chance to experience Idaho’s panhandle backcountry. At very least, I would like to take my son to a ridge where his grandfather and I hiked, to see no sign of humans in a sea of mountains.

For decades, the Forest Service proposed that the Mallard-Larkin be recommended as a Wilderness Area. Only Congress can designate a Wilderness Area, but the Forest Service did its job -- keeping the area pristine until Congress did its job.

Now, the Forest Service is going backwards. To appease a few people who oppose wilderness on ideological grounds, they are retreating in protecting real ground.

Oddly enough, it’s the very most attractive and fragile part of the Mallard-Larkin, the high lakes and alpine, where the agency wants to retreat. They would offer protections on paper as a “pioneer area,” but not in law.

If you love Idaho’s backcountry, please email the Panhandle National Forest Supervisor Mary Farnsworth and urge her to stick to the agency’s longtime promises, and work to preserve an intact Mallard-Larkin Wilderness.

More than 100 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt hunted in the Idaho Panhandle and fell in love with the place. When he became president, Roosevelt turned much of the state into national forests.  I’m always grateful for TR’s foresight. I wish it were more prevalent in today’s Idaho Panhandle National Forest.

I doubt I’m alone. Where else is the Forest Service in retreat on protecting formerly recommended wilderness areas?

Image: Idaho is what America was, especially the Mallard-Larkin Recommended Wilderness Area. Photo courtesy of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.

Ben Long is an outdoorsman, conservationist and Eagle Scout who has split his life between Idaho and Montana. He is senior program director at Resource Media.

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