It's been 10 years since the Sawtooth Society was born. Now, on the tail end of the organization's first decade of existence, it is under new leadership.
The organization's founding executive director, Bob Hayes, stepped down earlier this year, and biologist David Genter arrived in the Sawtooth Valley in early June to fill Hayes' big shoes.
"After about nine years I started thinking, this is starting to feel like a second career," Hayes said. "Every organization, no matter how successful it is, needs to grow and develop and involve new people and fresh faces, people with fresh perspectives. I think we made the right decision, and I think we hired a great guy in Dave Genter."
Genter is bringing an extensive background in conservation to the Sawtooth Society. He is the founder and principal of Big Sky Land Group, a firm specializing in land conservation for the past three years. Earlier, Genter directed the Northern Rockies Program for the Trust for Public Land, completing conservation efforts on nearly 200,000 acres in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. He previously worked for The Nature Conservancy, establishing the Montana Natural Heritage Program and statewide Natural Resources Information System.
For Hayes, the transition is bittersweet. He has been with the organization since its 1997 inception.
"It's been a wonderful experience," he said, "probably the most rewarding, satisfying period of my life from a professional standpoint. It's in the fact that we were doing good in an area that so desperately needed it."
Hayes said the Sawtooth Society was the brainchild of Bethine Church, widow of the late Sen. Frank Church, a prominent Idaho Democrat. Bethine Church spent part of her childhood on the SNRA, was married there and continues to maintain involvement in conservation issues and politics in Idaho.
"In the mid-1990s it became obvious, at least to Bethine, that there was a desperate need for a citizen group to serve as an advocate for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area," Hayes said.
Among the people Church called was Hayes, in his first month or two of retirement from Boise Cascade.
"That was the beginning of it all, and the organization was established in August of 1997," Hayes said.
The 756,000-acre SNRA was designated by Congress in 1972 to preserve natural, historic and pastoral qualities of several stunning Central Idaho mountain ranges and valleys. The area contains headwaters for eight large rivers, chinook and sockeye salmon spawning habitat and rugged alpine mountains. Its agrarian history is preserved in its towns: Stanley, Smiley Creek, Obsidian and Clayton.
Congress set the area aside for several reasons. Among them was the threat of a large, open-pit molybdenum mine at the foot of 11,815-foot Castle Peak. Another, however, was the ongoing subdivision of the Sawtooth Valley floor, and in the mid-1990s, congressionally allocated funds for conservation easements in the SNRA withered.
"There were two reasons why the organization was founded, and one was to preserve open space," Hayes said. "Open space preservation was really threatened in the mid-1990s for lack of funding. One of the things I consider our most significant achievement is that we successfully lobbied Congress for Land and Water Conservation Fund moneys to help protect land on the SNRA."
In the organization's second year it worked to help secure funding, which the Forest Service used to purchase a conservation easement on 160 prominent acres in the Stanley Basin, just outside Stanley. The area might have been a 20-lot subdivision.
"It was the specter of that development that got people's attention in the mid-1990s," Hayes said. "The forest Service and the property owner were at loggerheads. The society stepped in and tried to facilitate a discussion between the two parties. To their credit, both parties responded favorably. The subdivision was halted. And as a result the Stanley Basin has potentially 20 fewer, highly visible homes in it today than it otherwise might have had."
That achievement "absolutely" helped cement the society's presence in Central Idaho, Hayes said.
"In 1997 we were formed. We were a concept. In 1999 we were a reality."
But Hayes' proudest accomplishment is more recent. In the last several years the Sawtooth Society facilitated a planning process called Sawtooth Vision 2020, Shared Strategies for the Future. The point was to develop via grassroots consensus a planning blueprint for the SNRA for the next 20 years.
"That is a huge effort," Hayes said. "We were the initiator of the idea and the sponsor of the effort. But it's an effort that involved the Forest Service and other SNRA stakeholders to try to develop a shared vision for the area and an action plan for achieving that vision."
Thirty-five to 40 stakeholders participated in the extensive workshops.
"As a result the Forest Service and other interested parties up here have a blueprint for moving ahead to make sure this place is the kind of place people want it to be," Hayes said. "It's really an exciting deal. I don't know that there's another forest in the country that's done it. What's really astonishing is that given the diversity of the stakeholder interest, we got through this thing without a fight."
Now, Hayes will finally follow through with a retirement he initiated a decade ago, but he'll continue as the Sawtooth Society's board president.
The current and former board of directors include those who led the effort to create the SNRA in 1972: former U.S. Sen. Jim McClure, former U.S. Rep. Orval Hansen, former U.S. Interior Secretary and Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, and Church, as well as conservationists, ranchers, recreation advocates, outfitters and property owners.