Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Stanley residents oppose land gifts for wilderness

Wildlife habitat, natural areas cited as important resources

Express Staff Writer

Some of the lowlands along Valley Creek are earmarked for transfer from the federal government to the city of Stanley. Year in and year out, as winter settles over Central Idaho, elk migrate to the area to weather the cold and snow. Express photo by Greg Stahl

For a grassroots group of Stanley-area and Sawtooth Valley residents, the federal land in and around Stanley is too precious to give up in exchange for wilderness in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains.

Earlier this month, they wrote a letter to Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, to encourage the politician to consider alternatives to proposed land gifts on the bench above the city and near the confluence of the Salmon River with Valley Creek.

As an alternative, they proposed that state-owned land on the bench above the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery could be sold to increase the private land base in Custer County.

Simpson Chief of Staff Lindsay Slater said the state-owned land looked like something he would like to look at, but he also said the land transfers in and around Stanley would not change.

"Stanley and Custer County have come up with a nice piece of land adjacent to the city," Slater said. "Congressman Simpson is going to go forward with that. We're looking to help Stanley, which is why we're looking at these adjacent lands."

Specific language in Simpson's Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act is still in flux, but a version submitted to Congress late last year proposed to transfer federal land near Stanley from the Sawtooth National Recreation Area to the city and to Custer County to increase the local tax base and provide for infrastructure needs.

The gifts would increase the 308-acre city by 76 acres, a 20 percent increase.

Slater added that another large land donation near the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River was scrapped, and land gifts near the cities of Clayton, Challis and Mackay are still likely to result from the legislation.

In its 2004 form, the bill would also protect 294,100 acres of the Boulder and White Cloud Mountains as wilderness. In all, the bill would funnel as much as $18.25 million into rural Idaho in the form of grants, a grazing permit buyout program and funds to purchase conservation easements. Another estimated $9 million to $11 million in public lands, more than 2,000 acres, could be given to Central Idaho political jurisdictions.

In an interview in January, Slater said revisions to the bill would be ongoing this winter and that the public would be afforded the opportunity to review the changes before the bill is resubmitted to Congress this spring.

For now, the Stanley-area residents, who call themselves Central Idahoans for Accountability in Government, are focusing their objections on proposed land transfers adjacent to Stanley.

"There are few views more stunning than a herd of elk against the brilliant backdrop of the Sawtooths in winter," the letter reads. "We are hoping that you might visit and be able to view them."

According to the group, about 80 elk wintered along Valley Creek hot springs and on nearby uplands this winter. In hard winters, the number of elk is double.

Both the areas around the hot springs and the bench above are earmarked for transfer in Simpson's bill. The 86-acre sagebrush landscape on the bench affords stunning views of the Sawtooth Mountains and the Stanley Basin below. It is popular with mountain bikers, hikers and motorcycle riders. In the winter, it is a snowmobile playground and an elk migration corridor.

Below, along Valley Creek, another 68 acres of land would be donated to Stanley. In hard winters, the hot springs attract elk that browse on grasses near the stream's edge.

"Unless modified, CIEDRA would profoundly and irrevocably damage important wildlife, botanical and scenic values that we hold dear in the Sawtooth country," the letter states.

CIEDRA proposes to transfer three parcels of land to Stanley and to Custer County.

An 8.3-acre property southwest of the city's current limit appears to be least controversial, but it was purchased in 1989 for $341,502 for the express purpose of stopping development. It is earmarked in CIEDRA for four homes.

Since the Sawtooth National Recreation Area was created in 1972, $55 million has been spent to purchase easements and land to protect the rural, natural and pastoral nature of the land in the area.

The 86 acres on the bench above Stanley will be used for up to 10 homes of no more than 3,500 square feet each. The 68 acres along Valley Creek would be used for local housing and "other public purposes such as, but not limited to, a park, community center or educational facility."

As an alternative, the group has proposed that Simpson look at 64 lots encompassing about 70 acres on the bench above the state fish hatchery. It remains to be seen whether the proposal will gain any traction.

They group concluded:

"While we support the protection of the Boulder-White Clouds, this should not come at the expense of ruining wildlife habitat and other priceless public lands in the SNRA and elsewhere."

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