A week after the Idaho Transportation Department suddenly plowed through a strip of sagebrush to create a new gravel pit on state land near Fourth of July Creek Road in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, U.S. Forest Service officials are still trying to sift through the dust.
The event "was an unfortunate case of miscommunication," said Sara Baldwin, SNRA area ranger, adding that she was working with the ITD "to keep this from happening again."
The issue was sparked by the construction of the Fourth of July gravel pit, which began without warning last week and caught SNRA officials completely off guard.
"A piece of equipment showed up, and that was the first we learned about it," SNRA Deputy Ranger Joe Harper said Wednesday. "We're not happy. We had a great working relationship with the ITD, so this was a surprise."
The gravel pit, approximately 45 miles north of Ketchum stems off the Fourth of July Creek Road, to the south, about a mile east of state Highway 75. By the end of last week, about a half-mile of dirt slashed through what was once sagebrush on state land property. A large piece of equipment still sat on the site Wednesday.
"I was just aghast when I saw this," said Lynne Stone, director of the pro-wilderness Boulder White Clouds Council. "It's totally inappropriate."
Harper said he had also heard that the ITD has plans to build additional gravel pits on state land near Alturas Lake Road, north of Smiley Creek, and at the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery, about two miles south of Redfish Lake Road. The latter could eventually be transformed into a residential subdivision, he added.
Tim Duffner, area supervisor for the Department of Land's south central supervisory area, which includes Stanley and the Sawtooth Valley, could not be reached for comment.
Baldwin said a subdivision near the hatchery is probably "just speculation."
ITD often uses state land to construct gravel pits for road improvement projects. In return, the Department of Lands receives royalties for the material extracted. If that land is school endowment land, as is the case with the state land near Fourth of July Creek, then the money benefits Idaho's public schools.
The only other gravel pit in the area is near Champion Creek, on another piece of state land about a mile south of Fourth of July Creek. Sawtooth National Forest Spokesman Ed Waldapfel said earlier this week that the Department of Transportation had requested a permit to extend the Champion Creek gravel pit onto Forest Service land.
Scott Malone, assistant district engineer for ITD, also said the entire issue was a misunderstanding.
"I think it was probably some miscommunication in conjunction with this particular site because of the number of parties involved," Malone said. "We have been working with folks, specifically on this project, for almost a year. They were aware that we were trying to get permitted into Champion Creek."
Malone said the gravel is needed for a road improvement project on Highway 21 between Vader Creek and Banner Summit northwest of Stanley, which will take place over the next couple of years.
"When we were preparing for this contract for Banner Summit, which went out last fall, we were trying to get permitted into Champion Creek through the Forest Service, and we knew time would be tight," Malone said. "So we were trying to work through this state land source. We were trying to meet this deadline.
"For us the deadline for the contractor was about a month ago."
He added that there are no direct plans for a new gravel pit near Alturas Lake Road, but "there has been a site near the fish hatchery in the works for awhile."
He said he is not aware of any plans to eventually build homes or to sell home sites there.
Malone said his department is working on a long-range plan for the SNRA to identify material sources, or gravel pits, for future road improvement projects.
He said the permit process is often lengthy and time consuming and that "it's not the best for us, and not the best" for the SNRA.
"Ideally, if we can get towards more of a long-range plan, we can get some sites identified, and it will be better for both of us," he said.
Baldwin agreed, saying the SNRA and ITD "need to work together and look at these proposals, ideas and actions together.
"We've got a ways to go, but I think we're on the right track."