Does wilderness make good business?
"I think there’s no question that this
wilderness designation would be an economic benefit. But, it will not be the
— RICK JOHNSON, Executive director,
Idaho Conservation League
"We’re in no way advocating that that
wilderness is going to be a save-all for Custer County."
— LINDSAY SLATER, Chief of staff
for Rep. Mike Simpson
"The economic health of Blaine County
depends on wilderness and roadless areas that provide for high-quality
— SARAH MICHAEL, Blaine County
"I’m totally against it. Totally
against it. It’s just more government."
— ROB DUNHAM, Challis
Second in a series of three
By GREGORY FOLEY
Express Staff Writer
Central Idaho, including the region that
encompasses the vast Boulder and White Cloud mountains, is a land of contrasts.
Flat pastures dotted with sagebrush give way to towering peaks. During the
abbreviated summers, a dry heat parches the landscape, before succumbing to an
extreme cold that asserts its grip each winter.
But for many central Idahoans, the most
noticeable disparity in the region is between the economies of the two counties
that comprise the heart of the state’s mountainous middle.
Blaine County is an established bastion of
wealth, fueled in large part by tourism and second homeowners attracted by
recreational amenities. Meanwhile, its neighbor to the north, Custer County, has
routinely seen a departure of people and jobs, as traditional industries that
extract resources from the abundant public lands have experienced a sharp
Legislation being drafted by Rep. Mike
Simpson, R-Idaho, to designate 250,000 acres of wilderness in the Boulder-White
Clouds and concurrently boost the Custer County economy with a unique economic
development package, proposes in part to lessen the financial disparity in
Lindsay Slater, Simpson’s chief of staff,
said economic considerations have been critical in the development of the draft
legislation. "We have to ensure we protect those who are affected directly,"
Slater said. "Packers, guides, ranchers, sportsmen… We need to work to ensure
that they are as well off or better off than they are today. Everybody needs to
win in this process."
inherently carry economic impacts, with arguments being made for and against
protected lands based on financial considerations.
Many conservatives claim that wilderness
areas give back to rural populations less than they take, creating only a
limited demand for basic services at the expense of traditional enterprises,
cultures, and recreational activities.
At the same time, some economists and
environmentalists have said that designating a large portion of the
Boulder-White Clouds as protected wilderness could in itself provide substantial
economic benefits to the economies of both Blaine and Custer Counties.
"I think wilderness designation would be
good for the identity of the area, and the economy of the area," said Rick
Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, which has strongly
lobbied Simpson to advance the wilderness legislation.
Simpson’s economic plan
In an attempt to diversify the
beleaguered economy of Custer County, Simpson plans to attach to his wilderness
proposal a still-evolving plan to raise up to $10 million for economic
development in Challis—the county seat—and its outlying areas.
The bill—to be called the "Central Idaho
Economic Development and Recreation Act"—currently includes plans to convey to
Custer County 16,000 acres of federal land somewhere near the White Cloud
Mountains. The scattered parcels of land would be sold to private landholders to
generate revenue for economic programs, while also increasing the tax base of
the cash-strapped county.
Slater said approximately $4 million of
the proceeds would be used to finance development of a modern educational
facility called the "Central Idaho Educational Center," while an equal amount
would be retained by county officials to promote economic development.
"All we would hope is that the county
would use that money to enhance what would be done at the Central Idaho
Education Center," Slater said.
In addition, an estimated $1 million in
land-sales proceeds would be reserved for recreational enhancements in Custer
County, including improvements to public campgrounds and multi-use trails. The
work would likely be administered by the state, Slater said.
The educational center, planned for
location in Challis, would be operated by a consortium of educational
organizations, including Boise State University, College of Southern Idaho and
University of Idaho. The facility would be charged with training students for a
variety of professions, such as medical services and emergency response, Slater
In theory, the center would provide Custer
County with a tool to develop a skilled work force, which in turn would attract
businesses and individual entrepreneurs seeking to locate in an affordable
"All we’re trying to do is give Challis an
edge up," Slater said, noting that the plan is "in no way" intended to be "an
economic bailout for Custer County."
Does Custer need help?
Many groups with an interest in Simpson’s
proposed legislation agree that Custer County needs economic stimulation,
although some environmental organizations outright oppose the concept of selling
public land to fund new programs.
"We believe direct appropriations are a
far more effective way to achieve economic enhancement goals," Johnson and ICL
directors said in a July 22 letter to Simpson.
Indeed, Custer County in recent years has
been in the midst of an economic depression. Unemployment in the county hovered
just under 8 percent in 2001, Idaho Department of Commerce statistics indicate.
Average yearly earnings per job in 2000 were $24,287, compared to a statewide
average of $28,103. In addition, an estimated 38 percent of the county’s income
is derived from non-labor sources, such as stock dividends, interest payments
and retirement payments.
"Custer County is in such dire straits,"
said Paul May, owner of the May Family Ranch reunion center and
bed-and-breakfast inn, near Clayton. "We’ve lost the superintendent of schools,
the principal of the high school, and the principal of the grade school. People
are just moving out."
In fact, the population of Challis from
1990 to 2002 declined sharply, from 1,073 to a mere 873. The population of
Custer County increased only slightly during the same period, from 4,133 to
4,292. The city of Mackay, on the southeast side of the proposed wilderness,
also decreased in population from 1990 to 2002.
Custer County’s population peaked in the
1980s at approximately 5,500, during the boom years of the mining industry,
which reached a countywide high in 1984 with approximately 600 employees. By
2000, a mere 206 county residents were employed in the mining industry.
Sharon May, co-owner of the May Family
Ranch, said she is concerned about the continued loss of jobs in longtime staple
industries that use public lands. "It sounds wonderful to set wilderness aside,
if you can control it," she said. "Logging has been stopped. Mines are being
closed. The cattle are being driven out. Ranchers’ incomes have really dropped."
However, one body of evidence suggests
that economies across the rural West are being forced to diversify to pull out
of the historical boom-and-bust cycles of extractive industries.
In a widely publicized report issued in
April, the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit organization with offices in Arizona,
Montana and Canada, provides data that suggest rural economies that have
diversified and have provided certain public amenities, such as Blaine County’s,
tend to be most successful.
Ben Alexander, associate director of
socio-economics for the Sonoran Institute and co-author of the report, called
"Working Around the White Clouds," said he believes the economic incentives in
Simpson’s plan could make a difference in Custer County. "What I think Mike
Simpson is trying to do is on track," he said.
In the 52-page report, Alexander states
that the demographic and economic conditions in the rural West are changing
rapidly, requiring communities to focus more on services and so-called
"knowledge-based" industries to stay competitive. "At the very least, citizens
need to realize that competing as a low-cost producer of food, fiber and
minerals is no longer a competitive advantage," the report states. "The game has
changed and the communities of central Idaho must adapt to these changes in
order to succeed economically."
The report notes that "decades of heavy
dependence on mining have left (Custer) County impoverished." The good news, it
says, is that the region is well positioned to establish itself as a retirement
and tourism destination.
"Before, the concept was jobs first, then
migration," Alexander said. "Now, people decide where they want to live. The
whole economic paradigm has shifted to migration first, then jobs."
Keys to economic success
Specific community offerings, such as an
educated workforce, locally based education facilities, a regional airport,
high-speed Internet access and public lands in protected status, can all play a
role in attracting new residents and businesses, Alexander said.
Blaine County—with approximately 20,000
residents—in 2001 posted average earnings per job of $30,709, well above the
state average. Part of the equation, Alexander said, is the social, cultural and
environmental amenities the county offers, which attract residents, tourists and
But, with more than 94 percent of the land
in Custer County controlled by federal and state agencies, some of its residents
claim that less, not more, government control is needed to boost the economy.
State Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said
that calling Simpson’s draft legislation an economic-incentive bill does not
automatically make it such. "I can call myself Elizabeth Taylor, but that’s not
going to make me beautiful," she said. "We’re losing our resource industries
because of environmental regulation."
Barrett said she believes that one of
Custer County’s primary economic shortfalls is insufficient federal "Payments in
Lieu of Taxes" subsidies—funds provided to counties with nontaxable federal
lands in their boundaries. Allocations are based on each county’s population,
amount of federal land in its borders and payments for uses of the land. For the
fiscal year 2003, Custer County is slated to receive $381,000 in PILT funds,
compared to $963,000 for Blaine County.
Benefits of wilderness
Countering claims that federal control
over and protection of lands necessarily hurts rural economies, the Sonoran
Institute’s 2003 "Working Around the White Clouds" report said there is abundant
evidence of "a strong relationship between economic growth and the amount of
land in protected status."
Alexander said a wilderness designation
for the Boulder-White Clouds would make central Idaho a more easily recognized
destination and enhance the opportunities for regional communities to promote
and develop their economic base with nonconsumptive uses of the land—such as
"Tourism is often the first step in an
economic transition," he said. "People come to a place first as tourists, and
then may relocate their family or business."
Stanley, considered the gateway to the
Sawtooth Wilderness and immediately west of the White Clouds, has reaped the
benefits of a boom in the nation’s $18 billion per year human-powered
outdoor-recreation industry. The largest employer in the city, the Stanharrah
Corporation, operates a variety of tourism-related businesses.
Numerous studies also have indicated that
the draw of protected lands and recreation has provided a significant economic
boost to economies nationwide.
A study released in May by the Outdoor
Industry Foundation’s Business for Wilderness program found that counties that
contain the country’s largest national parks experienced income growth twice the
A 2001 study by Oregon-based economic
consultants Dean Runyon Associates—composed for the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber
and Visitors Bureau—states that the impacts of tourist spending in 2000 in
Blaine County sustained 5,980 jobs and provided $120 million in income.
Blaine County support
Blaine County commissioners last December
unanimously supported a wilderness designation in the Boulder-White Clouds. "The
economic health of Blaine County depends on wilderness and roadless areas that
provide for high-quality recreation opportunities," Commissioner Sarah Michael
Cathy Becker, mayor of Challis, said she
believes establishment of a new wilderness area near the city would not have a
profound effect on the local economy. She said it could discourage elderly
travelers and families with children from visiting Challis because access to
surrounding lands would be restricted. However, she noted that if the national
economy improves, significant numbers of out-of-state travelers—many of whom
have significant travel budgets—could be inclined to visit a new wilderness area
in the Boulder-White Clouds.
Lance Moss, president of the Challis Area
Chamber of Commerce, said many Challis business owners hope to establish a more
tourism-based economy, but do not necessarily want more designated wilderness.
"It could be good or bad, depending on your business," he said.
Moss said a wilderness designation for the
White Clouds could have a negative impact on local businesses catering to large
numbers of tourists who visit the region to ride motorized vehicles. At the same
time, outfitters that offer horse-packing and fishing trips might grow, he said.
"The mentality that I run across is that
(the wilderness designation) is pretty much inevitable, so people hope we can
get something out of it," Moss said.
Paul May, who said his lodging business
alone will bring 1,500 people to Custer County this year, said he supports
Simpson’s proposal in concept, but wants more details. "We need to make this
area a destination, not just a drive-through."