Managing scenery, wildlife and humans

  • Sawtooth Wilderness Area

    Diane Sylvain
  • The spectacular peaks that tower near Stanley, Idaho

    Glenn Oakley photo
  • Sawtooth manager Paul Ries

    William VanVorhis Cook Jr. photo
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

STANLEY, Idaho - Since it was set up 25 years ago, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area has been colored by a contentious relationship between the Forest Service and private landowners, whose inholdings - including homes, ranches and businesses - account for 25,000 of the area's 540,000 acres. The owners are the holdouts who have refused to sell to the U.S. government. Recently, events have led to an especially hostile standoff between the two sides. Now the basic objectives of the recreation area and policies of its managers are coming under growing scrutiny.

Sawtooth NRA manager Paul Ries says the real trouble began in 1991, with the federal listing of several endangered Idaho salmon species. Protecting the fish has catalyzed anger and discontent among the valley inhabitants, many of whom rely on rafting, fishing and other river-based recreation for income.

"What the salmon listing is doing to the SNRA and all over the Columbia River basin is like the listing of the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest," says Ries. "It just changes the entire character of communities. But here it's not so much the shutting down of one industry, but a squeezing of all of them."

One of 38 national recreation areas in the country, each with its own charter and mission, the Sawtooth occupies a public-land category of its own. The area is managed without the environmental protections that come with wilderness designation, or the severe human-use restrictions that apply to national parks, and it lacks the "multiple use" directives that guide national forests and Bureau of Land Management areas.

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area, explains Ries, was created to slow the growing subdivision of private land and development that began to sweep through the Sawtooth Valley in the late 1960s. The law that established the recreation area says, first, that it will "assure the preservation and protection of the natural, scenic, historic, pastoral and fish and wildlife values."

Enforcing that law has made Ries, who came to Idaho four years ago, something of a media star, the subject of newspaper articles, town meetings, and television broadcasts. In recent months, he has been called a liar, an eco-terrorist and worse, but Ries says "taking the heat" for controversial policies is part of his job.

Ries believes the Sawtooth's mission is clear, at least in dealing with wildlife and the environment. But there is no precedent for Forest Service officials in the recreation area to follow in managing people.

"It's all gotten so political," says Lisa Stoeffler, one of 13 Forest Service employees who live in Stanley. "Up here, we're trying to stay away from politics and just do what the law tells us."

Stoeffler says she and other employees have been excluded from the debate over Sawtooth management, although she gets disgruntled calls about it almost every day. "We're not invited to meetings, there's no chance for dialogue. We just have to stand back and listen. It's really pretty discouraging."

Both sides would testify to that.

"It's like (the Forest Service) coming in, taking your car keys, and saying it's their car until you can prove otherwise," says Bill Knight, a member of the grassroots group United Stanley, and an employee of the Stanley Chamber of Commerce. He says the recreation area's managers, specifically Ries and Sawtooth forest supervisor Bill LeVere, want private landowners out.

"Because when you have landowners," says Knight, "you have property rights and constitutional rights, and those are exactly what they're trying to get rid of here. They're running the Sawtooth National Recreation Area exactly how they want to. There's just no accountability there."

Ironically, the difficulty of life in the recreation area may be the only common ground between the Forest Service and the area's residents.

"It's really kind of insidious for us," says Ries. "In some ways, (agency employees) are going through a lot of the same things the people who are complaining are dealing with."

Personnel and budget cutbacks, says Ries, make it even harder for the Forest Service to protect all of the conflicting interests that exist within the recreation area. Ries says the recreation area has cut over half its permanent employees since the 1980s, despite increases in visitor numbers. Four years ago, he hired nearly 100 seasonal employees, this year he will hire about a dozen.

"When I got here," says Ries, "people made it very clear to me that we were a recreation area, not a park. And that that was better. Now, it would almost be easier if they just made it a park and had somebody else run it."

In the meantime, Forest Service officials are holding monthly meetings with a group of landowners, business people and members of United Stanley. The goal is to improve communication and relieve tensions.

The writer is a former HCN intern.

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