Wednesday, August 9, 2006

SNRA gravel pit

Express Staff Writer

A state-owned and managed gravel pit on Fourth of July Road, in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountains, has raised concerns. Gravel mined at the site will be used on highway improvement projects. Express photo by Pam Morris

The collision of highway construction needs and environmental aesthetics have forced the Idaho Transportation Department and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area to look for ways to abandon mining gravel on islands of state-owned land in the SNRA for highway construction material.

But principals and observers familiar with the fury that erupted over a gravel pit east of state Highway 75 along Fourth of July Road south of Stanley said this week such an agreement probably can't be worked out before 2008.

Passersby claim the pit is an eyesore that conflicts with the surrounding natural beauty of the SNRA's public lands.

The clash of competing interests is a reminder of the dilemma ethicists and philosophers have wrestled with since recorded time: "What is legal may not be right."

When the 756,000-acre SNRA was created by Congress in 1972, the law specifically exempted four sections (640 acres each) of state-owned land from prohibitions that applied to other uses of the land.

Owned by the Idaho Lands Department, the state parcels like all lands agency property are to be used as part of the agency's mandate to generate income for public schools.

When state transportation awarded a $2.9 million contract last summer to HK Contractors, of Idaho Falls, to resurface eight miles of state Highway 21 near Banner Summit, the search began for a source of gravel.

Scott Malone, assistant district engineer for ITD, said that the state had applied to federal officials to mine an existing pit near Champion Creek, south of Fourth of July Road, but that "time ran out" before permission could be granted and work on the highway needed to begin.

The contract and the decision to use the site did not require any decision by the state Department of Lands or its commission, lands agency Area Supervisor Tim Duffner explained.

Duffner said the convenience of gravel inside the SNRA influences costs. He pointed out that if trucks using $3-per-gallon diesel fuel had to haul materials farther, costs to the public would soar.

The contractor is paying Idaho's Lands Department $1.50 per cubic yard, then is reimbursed by the ITD through the contract. ITD District 4 Engineer Devin Rigby estimated the gravel would earn the lands agency about $45,000 from the current project.

But the engineering demands and economic considerations collide with the mandate of the Forest Service and the SNRA.

SNRA Superintendent Sarah Baldwin expressed "concern about the historic, pastoral, scenic values of the SNRA" and the charge to preserve and protect SNRA's natural environment.

However, she, along with others, said there's no legal way of shutting down the gravel operations.

She confirmed, however, that negotiations were under way between federal and state officials for an alternative to gravel pits inside SNRA—a swapping arrangement whereby state-owned lands inside the SNRA would be exchanged for federal lands elsewhere.

Lands Department executive Duffner said the most promising possibility involves swapping federal land near Donnelly and the Tamarack resort for the SNRA tracts.

The unofficial watchdog of the SNRA, the Sawtooth Society, founded by Bethine Church, widow of the late U.S. Sen. Frank Church, whose legislation created the SNRA, has joined the controversy.

Sawtooth Society President Robert Hayes said a letter was sent to state and federal officials expressing concerns about whether federal and state officials communicate adequately on issues such as the gravel pit.

Agreeing there's no legal way of preventing the state from using its land inside the SNRA for gravel mining, Hayes supports the idea of land swaps.

"If (SNRA) doesn't like where the state is excavating gravel, then the federal government needs to identify and locate and make available sources of gravel for the ITD that are acceptable," he said.

Hayes as well as SNRA Superintendent Baldwin both expressed concern about the noise impact on nearby cabin occupants: Digging, they say, begins about 4:30 a.m. and continues until 10 p.m.

Baldwin conceded that the Forest Service also could've done better in finding suitable camping areas for the gravel pit's 16 workers, who now are using scattered sites for camping.

ITD's Malone said the work would be completed by mid-September or October. Duffner said some berms have been built to conceal the site, and that eventually the pit will be recontoured and reseeded to restore the original condition.

As for reports that the ITD may open a pit across the highway from the state fish hatchery south of Stanley, Rigby said that ITD and the Forest Service are discussing work that would help develop an area for more Forest Service cottages.

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