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Bob Hayes Interview

Bob HayesBob Hayes was the founding executive director of the Sawtooth Society. He also served as president of the non-partisan Society. Bruce Reichert conducted this interview in the summer of 2012.

What's the mission of the Sawtooth Society?
The Sawtooth Society was formed in 1997 to address two specific threats to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. The first was inappropriate development, and the second was a deteriorating recreational infrastructure. Fifteen years have passed, and the Sawtooth Society has been largely successful in preventing inappropriate development by successfully encouraging Congress to give the Forest Service approximately $17 million dollars to acquire conservation easements on private land within the SNRA, including a 160 acre parcel in the Stanley Basin which was already slated for a 20-unit subdivision.

The Society has also invested well over $500,000 to enhance the recreational infrastructure within the area — trails, camp sites, interpretive programs, search and rescue services, emergency rescue, emergency and medical services and more. And then more recently the Society conceived of and helped initiate something called Sawtooth Vision 20-20, which is a long term strategic management plan for the area that both public entities like the Forest Service and private entities have subscribed to and are carrying out to this day.

Tell me more about the Sawtooth Vision 20-20.
It involves both public and private entities, both government agencies like Blaine County, Custer County, the U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Game, the city of Stanley, as well as some private organizations. And the aim here is to focus on those management activities — whether they be public or private — that are going to have the greatest potential benefit in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

"The Sawtooth Society has been largely successful in preventing inappropriate development by successfully encouraging Congress to give the Forest Service approximately $17 million dollars to acquire conservation easements on private land within the SNRA."We developed this back in 2006. It was a cooperative effort, and it is alive and well to this day. In fact, earlier in 2012 we had an update in which members of the community gathered at the community center in Stanley, and we reviewed the progress that had taken place with the previous year. It is amazing how cooperative people have been. I think there was a fair amount of skepticism going in. Well, I think some people thought, let's give it a shot, let's see how it works. Let's see if this is for real, and they surprised themselves. They've stuck with it.

Why is it working?
I think it is a universal desire on the part of people who live, work and play in the Sawtooth Recreation Area, to make sure that it remains a special place. And it is a special place. It's a special place to all the stakeholders. As a matter of fact, I was in Stanley earlier today, and I overheard some visitors from Scandinavia marveling at what they had seen here, their experience here. And you know, for somebody who comes from that part of the world, which is pretty spectacular in and of itself, it just underscores the specialness of this place.

Donna Marie and I moved to Idaho in 1971 and we decided we would go back to Boise over Galena summit though Stanley and back down through Lowman and Idaho City — and we were absolutely blown away. It was like we had just entered the center of the universe. We decided then and there that this is where we wanted to spend more and more of our time. Our children, all of whom are grown now with their own families, spent every weekend here. As a matter of fact, they were probably the only children that most people knew who never once asked to go to Disneyland and, by the way, who never got to go to Disneyland because we were always here enjoying the Sawtooths.

So you have seen some changes here, no doubt.
One of the beauties of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area is that it hasn't changed much. What you don't see is what is important, and what absolutely blows people's minds away when they've come over from the Wood River Valley is they look down into the Sawtooth Valley and see this wide open expanse. They see the Sawtooths to their left; they see the White Clouds to their right. They see the Salmon River running down the middle of this broad valley, and they can't imagine why it isn't filled up with homes.

And the reason is because members of Congress in 1972 had the wisdom to designate this area a National Recreation Area, and they gave the Forest Service the resources necessary to acquire conservation easements on much of the private land in the Sawtooth Valley and Stanley Basin. That is why you see as little development here as you do and why it will remain this way for generations to come.

Explain how a conservation easement works.
A conservation easement is a legally binding agreement, a contract, between — in this case the U.S. Forest Service and a private land owner — in which the private land owner agrees to be compensated in exchange for limiting development on his or her property. For example, most of the private land that existed at the time that the Sawtooth Recreation Area went into effect in 1972 exists today. In fact, I believe the number is something like 75%. That is because the Forest Service chose not to come in and try to acquire the property in fee, which would have been terribly expensive and quite frankly, unnecessary. Instead, they opted for conservation easements which limited development in many cases to a single home site; maybe on a particularly large property like a ranch, maybe they would allow two or three potential home sites.

Galena Overlook [Credit: Lisa Kidd]A gorgeous area that never became a national park. Are you disappointed?
This area has been considered special for a hundred years or more. In fact, dating back to the early part of the 20th century, there had been proposals to make this a national park because of its very special characteristics. But it was an idea that never seemed to gain much traction. primarily because Idahoans opposed it. Idahoans knew that hunting, for example, was not allowed in national parks. They didn't want to give up that activity here in the Sawtooths and White Clouds.

Efforts to protect the area ebbed and flowed for a number of years, and finally around 1970 people got serious about protecting it once again, but this time the proposal was for a new fangled resource designation called a national recreation area. And unlike a national park, it allowed private property to be held within its boundaries; it allowed hunting; it was not managed as intensively as a national park; and I think, from my own perspective, I must tell you I think that was a wise decision.

We're free to come and go in a national recreation area. We don't have a lot of rangers around with ranger hats on telling us to stay on the asphalt paths or stay out of here or stay out of there, and I think that's the way most people like it. I know it is the way Idahoans like it, and I know it is the way my wife and I like it.

How closely has the U.S. Forest Service hewed to the original concept of a National Recreation Area?
I think the concept of a national recreation area for the Sawtooths and the White Clouds, the Sawtooth valley and the Stanley Basin, the headwaters of the Salmon River was a terrific idea; and I think, looking back 40 years, it has been a marked success. That isn't to say that everything is perfect, but it's darn near perfect, and people ought to be very happy that members of Congress and just ordinary citizens had the foresight to do what they have done; and I hope that they appreciate the efforts that organizations like the Sawtooth Society have made to carry on the tradition and make sure this place remains special for generations to come.

And I think the challenge ahead of us now is to make sure that we keep those protections in place and that this area remains a wonderful place for my grandchildren and their children and their children. And I have every reasonable confidence that will occur.

"That isn't to say that everything is perfect, but it's darn near perfect, and people ought to be very happy that members of Congress and just ordinary citizens had the foresight to do what they have done."One of the arguments for national park status is that there would be more funding available.
Money is always an issue, and I think it is an issue with national parks as well. You hear national park advocates complain about being underfunded, and the parks are deteriorating. They have interest groups like the Sawtooth Society working on their behalf, just like the Sawtooth National Recreation Area does. The bottom line here is... you look around. You look at the Sawtooths, you look at the White Clouds, you look at the Sawtooth valley and you have to ask yourself whether more money would have helped make this place more special than it already is. And I'm not so sure that it would.

What you need are dedicated public servants and people — ordinary citizens — who join together to make sure that it stays special.

Has the Sawtooth Society taken a position on Congressman Simpson's CIEDRA proposal for the White Clouds?
When Representative Simpson first proposed wilderness legislation known as CIEDRA for the White Clouds and the Boulder mountains and other portions comprising parts of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, we told him that we could support his bill as long as it didn't have an adverse effect on the existing Sawtooth National Recreation Area — because that's what the Sawtooth society is all about. We are not a wilderness advocacy group per se, although we can support wilderness. Our objective is to protect the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. And as long as his wilderness proposal did no harm, we felt we could support it. We did, and we have, and we are.

Any surprises over the last several years with this whole process?
There is one issue going forward that has emerged, and that is recognition that the four sections of land owned by the State of Idaho within the boundaries of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area can pose a problem. They are not bound by the terms of the federal legislation that created the SNRA. In fact, they were explicitly exempted from those rules and regulations. And the Idaho Department of Lands has an obligation to manage those properties for the school trust fund. As a result, those lands could be potentially used in ways that are injurious to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

Proposed subdivisions like this one near Obsidian were a concern in the 1960s. [Credit: U.S. Forest Service]For example, in the 4th of July Creek drainage just off of Highway 75 is a large open pit gravel mine that the Department of Transportation opened about four years ago. And while we were very respectful of the fact that the State of Idaho can use its lands in any way it chooses, we do and they do as well understand that some uses of their land could be contrary to the values of the SNRA. So the Sawtooth Society is working with the federal government — specifically the Forest Service and the State of Idaho — to see if, long term, we can swap out those four parcels of state land for federal lands elsewhere in the state of Idaho and thereby eliminate the potential conflict.

It's a very complicated, very long term issue. There are times in the summer when they have klieg lights, back-up alarms, crushers, smoke, and you're right out in the middle of the Sawtooth valley with the Sawtooths as a backdrop, and you say to yourself, there's got to be a better place to do that than right here. And I think everyone understands that, but the reality is the highway department needs gravel to maintain the roads, and it's a good source of gravel. Unless we can find another source for them that is acceptable, or unless we can swap out the lands in total, we're going to continue to have these potential conflicts.

Any personal victories over the years that you feel really good about?
I spent the first 40 years of my working career in a corporate environment. It was very satisfying, and it was rewarding and I enjoyed it immensely. But the last 10 or 12 years since my retirement from Boise Cascade, working for the Sawtooth Society and getting it started and up and running has been, I think, the most satisfying time of my life. It has been an absolute joy.