Wednesday, August 16, 2006

ITD injures the heart of Idaho

On a fine day in June, bulldozers arrived in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and mowed down acres of sagebrush in the middle of the Sawtooth Valley near state Highway 75.

Smoke and dust and noise soon emanated from the site. Electric lights lit up the night and began to compete with the Milky Way.

The SNRA suddenly sported a big, oozing black eye. The natural, scenic, and pastoral values protected by legislation that created the SNRA in 1972 were smashed to bits by the Idaho Transportation Department.

Instead of the sea of sage that leads to mountain peaks, visitors traveling on the highway now see big gravel haulers, stacks of industrial machinery, lights and new foothills—made of gravel.

From Fourth of July Creek Road, the peaks and foothills of the Sawtooth and White Cloud mountains are reduced to backdrops for the gravel mining and crushing operation that operates from 4:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. not far from U.S. Forest Service seasonal employee housing.

The sight is shocking to those who know the history of the SNRA and who understand the economic importance of the area to tourism.

Taxpayers spent millions of dollars to protect the scenic vistas in the SNRA from commercial and residential development. The Forest Service spent millions of man-hours figuring out how to protect the vistas and rural nature of Idaho's heartland for future generations. It created rules for everything from cabin rooftops to sprinkler systems to ensure that they are in harmony with the wild surroundings. It fought legal battles to ensure that nothing scarred the land that is precious to Idahoans and all Americans.

Yet, the Forest Service claims that it can do nothing to stop the ITD from doing what it wants on state lands inside the SNRA. Worse news: The state owns more land there. Another piece lies next to the Salmon River across from the fish hatchery on Highway 75.

ITD needs the gravel for highway improvements in the area. Understandable.

But the Forest Service had offered the ITD an alternative site at Champion Creek on federal land screened from the view of visitors. ITD rejected it and let a 10-year lease to a gravel pit operator.

Forest Service insiders say the agency's first inkling of the rejection came the day the state site was stripped.

The reaction of people who see the heavy industrial operation for the first time is, "Why would people do such a thing—even if they could?"

The ITD has defaced the Sawtooth Valley and injured the delicate heart of Idaho. It should be ashamed—so ashamed that it rights this hideous wrong.

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