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Land | Environment

Communities Around White Clouds Sharply Split Over Proposal

In the late 1960's, ASARCO wanted to build a massive open pit mine under these two peaks. The one on the left is Castle Peak and on the right is Merriam Peak deep in the White Cloud mountains.

In the late 1960’s, ASARCO wanted to build a massive open pit mine under these two peaks. The one on the left is Castle Peak and on the right is Merriam Peak deep in the White Cloud mountains.

Aaron Kunz

BOISE, Idaho – Tempers and emotion ran high at a recent meeting between leaders from Idaho’s Blaine and Custer counties. The meeting was an attempt to gage public reaction to efforts aimed at convincing the Obama Administration to declare the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains a national monument.

Custer County residents discuss the White Clouds:

The Boulder-White Clouds in Idaho are rugged, located in the heart of the state’s mid-section. It is the true example of mixed-use land, divided among several federal agencies and managed under many different rules.

For most that visit the Boulder-White Clouds, there tends to be a burning desire to keep things the way they are. But just how to do that isn’t agreed upon. There are competing interests between those who want access to the hundreds of miles of trails and those who want to protect it from even the possibility of further human development.

The balance today is a patchwork of national forest, BLM land, wilderness and national recreation area. Since the push to preserve public land in the 1960s, there are have been efforts to change the Boulder-White Clouds into one large domain protected by federal law.

Now a new development is brewing: support for President Barack Obama to declare the Boulder-White Clouds a unified national monument. The president is granted the ability to declare a national monument under a century-old law known as the Antiquities Act.

The Obama Administration hasn’t said either way if it intends to support a National Monument designation, but the idea alone is kicking up controversy.

Supporters say they want to protect the land permanently while supporting the local economy by creating a place that vacationers from all over the world would want to visit.

Opposition is worried that change could close off more public land to certain motorized access and livestock grazing, or cause more headaches by adding to the mix of rules and regulations that already exist.

The line drawn in the sand is generically between the north and the south. Blaine County, which is home to Sun Valley, Hailey and Ketchum, appears willing to support a national monument. Opposition comes from the north in Custer County, primarily from the communities of Stanley and Challis.

Of course, the dynamic is much more complex than north versus south. EarthFix reporter Aaron Kunz along with Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker have been reporting on this issue from Idaho and recently produced two videos. One from each side of the county divide.

Blaine County residents give their perspective on the White Clouds:

It’s not the first time land use debate has centered on the communities of Stanley and Challis, either.

They’re at the center of the White Cloud mountains, near the massive rock formation known as Castle Peak.

It was under Castle Peak that the American Smelting and Refining Company had planned to mine for molybdenum in the late ‘60s. The company wanted to build a road to the base of Castle Peak and dig a 600-foot deep surface mine. That prompted conservation groups, photographers and politicians in Idaho to actively oppose the proposed mine. That battle came to an end in 1972 when Congress established the Sawtooth National Recreation Area which protected the White Clouds from large scale mining.

In more recent years, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson tried to turn both the Boulders and the White Clouds into a single designated area. The plan’s intent was to preserve the land for future generations and would grandfather in certain public activities, which the congressman touted as a perfect blend of protection and access. That effort, known as the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, stalled in 2010. Some Idahoans questioned how much access would be allowed under an overhaul of the rules and regulations. For example, it wasn’t clear how if motorized access from motorbikes and ATVs currently allowed in some parts of the Boulder-White Clouds would continue.

Whether the effort to designate Boulder-White Clouds as a national monument would have any better success than Simpson’s effort remains to be seen.

For a history on Wilderness and the White Clouds:

— Aaron Kunz