Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Stanley coalition presses against land transfers

Sawtooth Society backs its work on BWC wilderness plan

Express Staff Writer

A coalition of Stanley-area and Sawtooth Valley residents is continuing to press Rep. Mike Simpson. R-Idaho, to withdraw federal lands earmarked for privatization from his Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act.

Simpson's chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, indicated earlier this month that the bill would be submitted to Congress late in April or early in May. He also indicated the congressman would not consider withdrawing the lands in question.

The diverse group—17 Stanley-area residents and two Wood River Valley residents—sent a letter on Saturday to the Sawtooth Society's board of directors asking the board to withdraw support for "giving away wildlife habitat for development."

Three of the coalition members are on the 39-member Sawtooth Society board of directors. The Boise-based organization's primary missions are preserving open space and enhancing recreational opportunities in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

At stake are 162 acres of SNRA land that would be given to Stanley and Custer County for subdivision and commercial development. The idea is to boost the tax roles in rural municipalities, as well as give them the opportunities to sell properties for additional money.

Last summer, the Sawtooth Society helped Simpson and other stakeholders identify, and propose deed restrictions for, lands around Stanley that could be granted as part of Simpson's legislation.

"The society as a whole is very sympathetic to (former Sawtooth National Recreation Area ranger) Dave Kimpton and the other signatories to that letter," said Sawtooth Society Executive Director Bob Hayes. "We certainly share their reluctance to give up federal lands."

But Hayes said the society came to the conclusion that if there is going to be wilderness designation in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, there will probably also be a giveaway of federal land. The society concluded it is only prudent to have a hand in those inevitable land transfers.

"It's important to try to have a role in managing the outcome," Hayes said. "We don't think that simply opposing a land transfer is a viable strategy. Indeed, we think it's a losing strategy."

Hayes also readily admitted that the sense among the society's board of directors is not unanimous. But at the end of an hour-long discussion last June, the majority of the board's members appeared to have their minds made up.

"A substantial majority supported the society's position and the approach we were taking," Hayes said. "That doesn't mean, obviously, that we convinced all of our directors we were on the right track."

The Stanley-area land grants would include 145 acres along or near Valley Creek close to its confluence with the Salmon River. According to the coalition members, including an Idaho Department of Fish and Game conservation officer, the lowlands along Valley Creek contain crucial elk wintering grounds and also contain spawning and rearing habitat for chinook salmon and steelhead.

"Along with being irreplaceable wildlife habitat, Valley Creek and its uplands offer spectacular views of the Sawtooth Mountains," said Marilyn Mueller, who has lived in the Sawtooth Valley for 35 years. "This part of Valley Creek is where elk survive in frigid, snowy Stanley winters. We're asking the Sawtooth Society to rethink its decision, live up to its mission and withdraw its support for giving away these SNRA lands."

Simpson's economic development blueprint would give away 68 acres on both sides of Valley Creek and 86 acres on a sagebrush bench near Valley Creek. The creek-side property would be given to Stanley. The upland area would be given to Custer County.

Another 8.3 acres are on the west end of Stanley, south of Highway 21.

An RV park, condos, trophy home sites, low-cost housing, tent campground, convention center and spa with hot tubs are a few of the uses discussed by officials for potential uses of the land.

Of the Stanley-area properties, the Valley Creek-area properties are the most controversial. Located between Stanley and unincorporated Lower Stanley, the lands hold some of the most photographed views in Idaho.

Stanley, often the coldest town in the United States, is known for harsh winters. About 80 to 120 elk survive winters because of the large hot springs, which keep areas free of snow, and because of the willows and vegetation along Valley Creek, according to the coalition.

Other wildlife also depend on Valley Creek's riparian and wetland areas, as well as its upland forests, meadows, springs and sagebrush steppe. Birds include bald eagles, golden eagles, osprey, hawks, sandhill cranes and others. Valley Creek is home to beavers, river otters, muskrats and mink.

The area also includes habitat for several rare species of wildflowers, including at least one that can be found nowhere else on earth: Stanley whitlow grass.

"CIEDRA would sell these SNRA lands, which would then be subdivided and/or paved for commercial use, profoundly damaging important wildlife, botanical and scenic values," Kimpton said.

Kimpton, who, in addition to being a retired SNRA ranger, is a hunter, angler and board president of the Salmon River Emergency Clinic, said the land gifts in Stanley must not go through.

"Valley Creek's habitat is essential for the diversity and survival of wildlife," he said. "We need to have a solid tax base, but not at the cost of harming wildlife and giving up irreplaceable habitat."

Noel Sitton, a Stanley-area real estate agent, agreed.

"The SNRA was created to preserve natural, scenic, historic, pastoral, fish, wildlife and recreation values. We've spent $58 million since 1972 in easements and land purchases to protect these values."

The residents said they believe the Sawtooth Society has done important work in the SNRA and pointed to the organization's mantra, stating that it is "dedicated exclusively to serving as an advocate for the SNRA."

"In the past, the Sawtooth Society has done important work in protecting the SNRA," said Ann Nosworthy, a Valley Creek homeowner. "It would be a shame for the society—and a horrible outcome for the elk and other wildlife whose survival depends on this place—for lower Valley Creek to be given away and destroyed.

"These SNRA lands belong to all of us, to our children and to future generations."

Earlier this spring, Simpson removed approximately 1,000 acres of Salmon-Challis National Forest lands near Cape Horn from the properties proposed for transfers. Land transfers near the cities of Clayton, Challis and Mackay are still likely to result from the legislation.

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