Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Blaine County to discuss roadless policies

Key meetings set for today in Ketchum, Hailey

Express Staff Writer

The state of Idaho is proposing to reassess how roadless areas in the state are managed. Photo by Willy Cook

The future of Blaine County's roadless areas takes center stage today, Sept. 9, with two public meetings in Ketchum and Hailey.

The meetings are part of a nationwide effort to finally determine how the country's 58.5 million acres of roadless national forest lands should be managed. Those same lands had been protected from development by President Bill Clinton's Roadless Rule until it was thrown out in 2001.

The Roadless Rule was greeted with widespread support in its brief existence but also met stiff opposition and was eventually overturned by the Bush administration to make way for the "Final Rule."

Under Bush's rule, all roadless areas are subject to change. Using current forest service plans as the template, that means new plans could range from building more roads to maintaining the status quo to adding more protection.

But just as Clinton's rule drew legal fire—nine lawsuits in federal district courts in five states, including Idaho—so has Bush's.

Last week, the states of California, Oregon and New Mexico all launched lawsuits against the Bush administration, alleging the Final Rule will open sensitive and cherished wildlands to inappropriate activities such as logging, mining and additional motorized use.

Studies indicate Idaho's roadless areas—totaling 9.3 million acres—support the overwhelming majority of the state's endangered wild salmon and threatened cutthroat and bull trout, as well as provide prime big game habitat.

Meanwhile, the Final Rule rolls on.

The crafting of the rule begins at the county level with input from local citizens, which is happening statewide and will continue through October. County commissioners will submit that public feedback to state governors—due in Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's office by March 1—who will then petition Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns if they wish to make changes to any of their state's roadless areas. Gov. Kempthorne has stated his intention to take advantage of the Final Rule.

"The Bush administration has provided an opportunity for states to petition the federal government and identify how many of these areas can be resolved," Kempthorne said at a press conference in June. "So, I intend to take them up on that offer."

What Kempthorne will recommend, however, is unknown. Conservationists fear the worst, while those who wish to see sweeping changes, such as access advocates, aren't expecting much.

"Most people in Custer County will ask for more (road) access than they'll get," Lin Hintze, a Custer County commissioner, said last week. Custer County, home to 1.3 million acres of roadless land, is renowned for its anti-wilderness, pro-access population. Hintze said Custer County's economy depends largely on off-highway-vehicle users, not hikers, backcountry skiers, fishermen or hunters.

"They stay in our hotels, they shop in our grocery stores, and eat in our restaurants," Hintze said of OHV users. He added that Custer County's priority is to hold on to the national forest road mileage that it already has.

"We will ask for more, but we definitely don't want to lose anything," he said.

Counter to Custer County, Blaine County will likely recommend no added development of its 368,000 roadless acres, according to Blaine County Commissioner Tom Bowman.

Jim Caswell, a former national forest supervisor who's now Kempthorne's top assistant on the Final Rule in Idaho, said counties that share roadless land must accept similar prescriptions. That being said, Custer and Blaine appeared headed toward a showdown, since the Sawtooth National Forest overlaps both counties. But since that land is managed by the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and will not be impacted by the Final Rule, the two counties will be free to develop independent prescriptions.

"There will be no fight between Blaine and Custer unless the SNRA changes its rules," Hintze said.

"We're going to work independently and then compare notes afterwards," Bowman said.

As for the rest of the state, conservationists and access advocates urge their supporters to get involved.

Blaine County's meetings today will be held in Ketchum City Hall at noon and at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey at 6:30 p.m.

Designed as open houses and not public hearings, over 20 different groups, including the Committee for Public Access, the Wilderness Society, the Idaho Council for Energy and Environment, and hunting and ski guides will attend.

Public comment forms will be distributed at both meetings, as well as instructions of where to send written comments. Blaine County and the rest of the counties in Idaho will collect all public feedback.

Blaine County meetings

· Wednesday, Sept. 7, at Ketchum City Hall at noon, and at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey at 6:30 p.m. Public comment forms will be distributed at both meetings.

· Custer County will hold five meetings in various locations between Sept. 7 and the end of October.

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