Idaho is home to 240 roadless areas totaling 9.3 million acres in the state's 10 national forests.
It's a vast figure for a relatively vague term.
To some, the definition of a roadless area may be as clear as its boundaries, which is to say not very clear at all. Some run into wilderness areas, others are adjacent to lands that serve as hubs for motorized users. Signs are generally not a priority.
Even the name itself can be misleading, as several of the state's roadless areas are actually crisscrossed by roads.
But if you need to know anything about these wild playgrounds, it's that they're currently subject to change under what's become known as the federal government's "Final Rule." Just what that change entails, however, seems as mysterious as the lands themselves.
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne announced in June that Idaho would move forward and develop a management proposal for Idaho's vast array of roadless areas.
As a part of that process, he'll nominate portions of the state's roadless areas for continued federal protection from mining, logging and energy development. But the Republican governor isn't spelling out yet how far he'll go in exercising the new role in forest management, which was granted to governors in April by the Bush administration.
"For over 30 years the whole issue of roadless lands has been in limbo," Kempthorne said at the press conference announcing his decision. "The Bush administration has provided an opportunity for states to petition the federal government and identify how many of these areas can be resolved ... So, I intend to take them up on that offer."
Kempthorne said his plan would rely almost exclusively on public input and involvement to develop recommendations for the roadless areas. He has appointed Jim Caswell, a former national forest supervisor and the administrator of the Idaho Office of Species Conservation, to take the lead in the process that will be conducted, basically, at the county level.
There are 192 million acres of national forest system lands in the United States. Of that, about 50 million acres are roadless, while another 38 million acres are designated as wilderness. (An additional 68 million acres of wilderness is designated on lands managed by other agencies.)
With 4.3 million acres, Idaho has the largest wilderness system in the Lower 48 states, including the biggest individual wilderness area outside of Alaska.
The Final Rule only applies to U.S. Forest Service lands.
The history of roadless areas dates back to the Nixon administration, when they were set aside for wilderness consideration. Since that time, some areas have been designated wilderness, while others have been developed. The rest have seen everything in between.
In 2001, President Bill Clinton launched the Roadless Rule, which was basically an attempt to protect the remaining roadless areas from future development. The federal government received more than 2 million written comments supporting the rule, making it the most popular in history. Within six months, however, it was challenged by nine lawsuits in federal district courts in five states, including Idaho.
Over the next couple of years, Clinton's rule was bogged down in messy litigation, but became effective for a short period in 2003.
In July 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it was publishing a proposed rule for public comment that would ultimately replace Clinton's rule. That rule, the Final Rule, gives state governors the opportunity to make recommendations to Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns about how they want each state's roadless areas to be managed.
In April 2005, the Roadless Rule's short life came to an end, and the Final Rule was born.
That announcement sparked a debate between two Idaho groups famous for clashing over public land use: conservationists and access advocates.
Conservationists want roadless areas to remain protected from logging, mining, development and extensive use by motorized vehicles, all of which would become possible with more road building. Access advocates, like the Blue Ribbon Coalition, based in Pocatello, would like to see a management policy that supports additional motorized use in roadless areas.
With self-interests running deep on both sides, exactly how and why the Roadless Rule was challenged and overturned is unclear.
Conservationists say it was a symbolic gesture from President Bush to those who supported his campaign. Officials from the Forest Service say it was created to strengthen protection provided by the Roadless Rule, clear the courts of the lawsuits, and put more power into the hands of the people who actually use roadless areas.
"Politics is the biggest motivator," said Jonathan Oppenheimer, a conservation associate for the Idaho Conservation League, one of the state's most influential environmental groups. "I think that basically it came down to a lot of donations from timber and resource (businesses)."
Caswell, who's acting as Kempthorne's point man on the Final Rule in Idaho, said that isn't the case at all.
He said the Roadless Rule was attacked in court for several reasons, but mainly because it largely ignored the input of actual roadless users. While Clinton's rule was wildly popular, much of its support came from afar.
"There wasn't really consideration of the local people who live in a local area," Caswell said. "That was the biggest part of the argument."
Added Dan Jiron, national press secretary for the USDA Forest Service, "Essentially the states were litigating because they were not being heard."
And that's what excites Adena Cook, public lands consultant for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, about the Final Rule. Blue Ribbon is mainly comprised of motorized users.
"This takes the Clinton Roadless Rule and puts it on its head," Cook said, adding that environmentalists paid upwards of $9 million to generate support for Clinton's rule. "This is bottom-up—the ideas for management originate at the grassroots level."
But if the Final Rule is for the people, by the people, why are conservationists panicking?
The construction of the Final Rule, which is currently under way, begins at the county level with input from local residents and Forest Service officials. County commissioners will compile that feedback and submit reports—due by the end of this year—to the governors. The general public can also send comments directly to Caswell.
Based on that feedback, the governors will decide if they want to change any of the management plans on their roadless lands. If they do want change, they must petition Secretary Johanns, who will make the final call. The governors' petitions are due by mid-March 2006.
The current management of roadless areas is based on Forest Service prescriptions, or Forest Plans. Some of those plans date back to the 1980s, while others are just a few years old.
While conservationists and access advocates squabble over the Final Rule's creation and how it should be interpreted, officials with the Forest Service claim it provides the best chance for mutual acceptance.
"I see this as a positive approach that does allow for meaningful dialogue," Jiron said, adding that the Final Rule will actually provide an "additional layer of protection" for roadless areas.
"That's what this rule is about. It can't initiate any type of new activity," he said.
But when asked specifically if additional motorized use was a possibility, Jiron said, "there are some exceptions."
Cook said that Blue Ribbon is "hopeful that additional access in key places will be gained" through the Final Rule.
With environmentalists crying foul, Caswell provided some clarification, explaining that the county's recommendations will be scrutinized by Kempthorne's office.
"If they want to see change, they need to explain why they want that change and how broadly that change is supported," Caswell said. "If it's just two people supporting, we'll stick with the current Forest Service plan."
Idaho's 9.3 million acres of roadless areas are divided into three categories: proposed wilderness (1.37 million acres); proposed backcountry (2.28 million acres); and proposed development (5.66 million acres).
Wilderness areas are under federal protection and closed to mechanized travel. Backcountry lands do not have roads and do not allow harvest (logging), but in some cases do allow motorized use.
Caswell said about 99 percent of the roadless acreage proposed for development was never developed.
Aside from the threat of additional roads and motorized use, which environmentalists blame for damaging sensitive lands and wildlife and fish habitat, the Final Rule could also open the door to mining, logging and future development, according to Oppenheimer. But Caswell said the Final Rule could also boost the health of those lands.
Proponents of the Final Rule aren't just access advocates, but hunters who wish to see the lands more carefully managed in order to improve elk and deer habitat. Some of the lands have grown into a tangled mess of old-growth trees, a result of years of fire suppression. Caswell said controlled burns and the thinning of those forests would benefit the overall health of the lands and wildlife.
But building more roads or opening roadless areas to increased motorized use will counter efforts to boost or preserve the health of fish and wildlife habitat, according to Scott Stouder, a western field director for Trout Unlimited based in Pollock.
Last summer, Stouder completed a report on Idaho's roadless areas. Using data collected by federal and state land agencies and the Department of Fish and Game, Stouder concluded that roadless areas provide 74 percent of the state's habitat for chinook salmon and steelhead, an anadromous species of rainbow trout; 68 percent for bull trout, a threatened species; and 58 percent for westslope cutthroat trout.
Ninety-four percent of sediment-impaired streams are found outside roadless areas, Stouder stated.
Additionally, 88 percent of Idaho land yielding more than 90 percent of branch-antler bull elk is roadless. Similar high figures were also found for deer. A whopping 98 percent of the land with November deer hunting seasons is roadless, and 97 percent of the land with September or November elk seasons is roadless.
"Everybody knows the farther you get away from roads the better the fishing and hunting is," Stouder said. "(Roadless lands) are irreplaceable to hunting and fishing quality and value. If you open up roadless areas, people will pull in and wildlife will pull out."
It was reported Tuesday that President Bush may take time out to fish Idaho's waters with Gov. Dirk Kempthorne during a quick visit to Tamarack Resort, south of McCall. Stouder said he was hopeful that the experience would have a lasting effect on the president, and the future of Idaho.
"We are hopeful that President Bush and Gov. Kempthorne have an enjoyable trout fishing experience, but more importantly, we hope they work to protect our irreplaceable fish habitat found in our national forest roadless areas."
While the formation of the Final Rule plows ahead, its outcome remains a mystery.
"I don't have any idea, not a clue," Caswell said.
And that seems to be the only issue all sides can actually agree on.
"There are more questions than answers at this point," Oppenheimer said.
If there are any answers, they can be found in Blaine County, which is home to 368,667 roadless acres.
Two public education forums—one in Ketchum (noon) and one in Hailey (6:30 p.m.)—will be held on Sept. 7.
Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael said she expects the county to offer a status-quo recommendation to Kempthorne.
"Blaine County has a long history of wanting to preserve and not create more roads," Michael said. "And that's (the commissioners') preference."
But liberal-dominated Blaine County—home to a large chunk of the state's conservationists—may be the odd man out.
Blaine County's northern neighbor, Custer County, will almost certainly push to maintain access in its roadless areas, which total more than 1.4 million acres. Only two other counties in the state—Lemhi and Idaho—have more than a million roadless acres.
"The roads that are (in place), we're going to try to keep them open," said Custer County Commissioner Lin Hintze. The county would also like to see a proposed all-terrain-vehicle trail approved in Copper Basin. In early August, Hintze said the commissioners had yet to set a date for any public meetings.
Blaine County Commissioner Tom Bowman said he wants to meet with Hintze and the Custer County commissioners, since the two counties share land in the Sawtooth National Forest. But Bowman said Hintze was not returning phone calls.
"We might not come to the same conclusions, and we don't want to tell them what to do," Bowman said, "but we want to work with them."
Caswell said two completely different prescriptions from counties that share public lands, like Blaine and Custer, will not be approved. He said the counties will need to work together to reach a compromise, and if they don't, the governors office will step in.
"If we have to," Caswell said. "Obviously, we don't prefer that, but there needs to be that coordination."
While the changes that could potentially take place on the state's roadless lands may not even be discernable, Oppenheimer is still concerned.
"The bottom line is that protecting Idaho's roadless areas strikes a balance," he said. "We've already developed about half of our national forests. Protecting that other half makes sense, especially when you consider roadless provides clean drinking water, irrigation, fishing, hunting, backpacking, and 75 percent of the remaining habitat for steelhead and salmon.
"These are not desolate lands, these are very important forest scenarios."
Oppenheimer also feels the public's awareness of roadless areas is lacking, which could increase the ease of changing their management plans.
"It's amazing how many people I've talked to that have spent years hunting or fishing in the same area who aren't even aware it's a roadless area," Oppenheimer said. "We need to heighten awareness."
· United States: 50 million roadless acres on national forest system lands.
· Idaho: 9.3 million roadless acres (32 percent of the state's land), which is the largest sum in the lower 48. An additional 4 million roadless acres exist on Bureau of Land Management lands.
· Blaine County: 368,000 roadless acres, mostly in the Sawtooth National Forest.
· Custer County: 1.4 million roadless acres.
· The White Cloud, Boulder and Pioneer mountains combined: 550,000 roadless acres. About 300,000 acres in the Boulder-White Clouds are proposed as wilderness.
Breakdown of Idaho's 9.3 million roadless acres
· Proposed wilderness: 1.37 million.
· Backcountry: 2.28 million.
· Proposed development: 5.66 million.
· 4 million acres, or 7 percent of Idaho, is federally protected wilderness.
Public Education Forums
Two sessions to discuss possible future plans for roadless areas on forest lands in Blaine County are scheduled Wednesday, Sept. 7:
· Ketchum City Hall, at noon.
· Hailey, Old County Courthouse, at 6:30 p.m.
Officials from the Sawtooth National Forest and representatives from other local agencies will lead the meetings, which are designed to provide the community with information about roadless areas and the Final Rule. These are not public hearings. Public comment forms will be handed out at the meetings.
The same forms can be found online at the Idaho Association of Counties web site, www.idcounties.org. Public comments can also be sent directly to Jim Caswell and the governor's office. Letters can be sent to: Attn. Jim Caswell, P.O. Box 83720, Boise, ID, 83720-0195, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Custer County has yet to set a date for any public meetings.