An Interview with Sandra Mitchell

Sandra Mitchell is the executive director of the Idaho Recreation Council. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2010.

Sandra Mitchell

Bruce Reichert: How have wilderness proposals changed since those first ones in the 1960s?
Sandra Mitchell: The first wilderness bills were the big wilderness bills. They were truly the primitive country and places like the Frank and the Selway-Bitterroot. The wilderness bills that we have seen in the last few years – the Owyhee and the Boulder White Cloud wilderness bills – they're smaller and the land has been used for decades; in the Owyhees, by grazers, by recreationists; in the Boulders, by recreationists. So they're not the same kinds of land.

Many people say and claim that the 'crown jewels' of wilderness have already been designated, that the rest of this is sort of sub-standard to those and that we're actually lowering the bar on wilderness standards.

BR: It seems like a lot of deals now occur in these newer wilderness bills.
SM: Wilderness bills have changed. The way they're developed has changed. For example, during the Frank Church wilderness, I was a congressional staffer, and so I watched it from afar; that was, for the most part, the timber industry and the environmentalists sitting down at a table and dividing up the land.

Now there are a whole bunch of different users out there who have a stake, and so the wilderness bills look different. We call CIEDRA [Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act]pork barrel wilderness, and I must say, I think it is amazing. Congressman Simpson was able to sell wilderness to people who live with wilderness, know the downsides to wilderness. He got them to say we want more wilderness, and the way he did that was by buy-offs and pay-offs, giving them cash, giving them land, all those kinds of things. However, in the new CIEDRA bill - the one that was introduced in the Senate - most of those things have been taken out; so what we pretty much have left is a stand-alone wilderness bill without a stand-alone wilderness bill title.

BR: Can wilderness help rural communities?
SM: The answer is no. If it were, then Grangeville and Dixie and Elk City and Challis economies would be booming, and they are not booming.

Communities that are next to wilderness that are doing surprisingly well would be a community like Stanley. Stanley is next to the Sawtooth wilderness, but it is also next to the Boulder White Clouds. It used to be, when you drove into Stanley, there were two population signs. One was summer and one was winter. Now there is only one. It is because they have a year round economy, thanks to snowmobiling in the winter, and folks come from all over the United States to snowmobile in Stanley, and the vast majority of them go into the Boulders because it is an incredible back country experience.

BR: Does Idaho need more wilderness?
SM: I would say no, we don't. We already have 4.5 million acres of wilderness that we have donated to the national wilderness system, and wilderness is the most restrictive land use designation there is, and I think that is sufficient, and I think what you are seeing all across the state is people saying that is enough. And we're hearing that message loudly and clearly. And it's not just the motorized community. It is folks all over who understand that wilderness means a loss of access.

Wilderness is what the Wilderness Act of 1964 says it is. It isn't what people think it is or what people want it to be. It is what the Act says it is, and the Act says that wilderness is an area where man is a visitor and his footprint doesn't belong. It is untrammeled by man.

Mother Nature manages wilderness, and as we've all seen on a regular basis, Mother Nature is not a gentle caregiver, and she will strike, she can blow out a stream that has anadromous fish in it, and you can't do anything about it. She can take down trees, she can close trails. That's her way. She clearcuts using fires. You have to use primitive equipment when you manage wilderness. For example, no motorized, no mechanized, you have to use a cross cut to clear a trail. That's expensive, and it is time consuming, and you don't get many trails cleared.

Motorbikes in the wilderness with snowcapped mountains in the backgroundBR: What is your perception of the Owyhee Initiative and the wilderness in that bill?
SM: I sat on the Owyhee Initiative board. It was a good experience. It was very educational. I learned a lot about all the issues in the Owyhee. I learned a lot about Junipers. I thought they were harmless trees! I didn't realize it was part of a Communist conspiracy to take over America! It was interesting. I represented motorized recreation and we did not support the final bill. We felt very strongly that the ranchers had a stake in it, and out of respect for the ranchers, we backed off and didn't oppose it, but we also didn't support it.

We had great concerns about the bill, primarily the size of the wilderness. We think they're too small to be effectively managed as wilderness, and we believe that in a short amount of time they'll come back and ask for more wilderness for that exact reason; it's too small.

Also, a lot of the land that is now wilderness had been grazed for generations, ranched for generations. There were roads and trails everywhere that were used by motorized recreation and ranchers, so we didn't believe that land truly qualified for wilderness, but we didn't oppose it, and we stayed out of it. We certainly didn't support it.

BR: What is your complaint about CIEDRA, the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act?
SM: It's not necessary. It's not good for the land, it's not good for the people, and it is not wanted. We've done polls and our numbers are overwhelming. People don't want the Boulder White Clouds designated wilderness.

We have created an incredible mix in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. You have the Sawtooth wilderness to one side, and across the way are the Boulders. The Boulders is an area that is shared, and it is shared by motorized, mechanized, by non-motorized. In the summer most of the land in the Boulders is managed as non-motorized. There are 11 trails that allow for access by motorized folks and by hikers; and in the winter, when there is nobody else out there, then it is open for snowmobiling. So it works. It makes sense. We have decades of practice of using that land, and after decades of use, it still qualifies for wilderness, which tells you that our use is not detracting from the wilderness characteristics. So you get to the point: why are we doing this? What sense does it possibly make?

Now, I think that most people accept the amount of wilderness we have and are willing to live with that, but how much is enough? And I think the people are saying loudly and clearly, from one end of the state to the other end, we have enough. We don't need any more.

BR: So, are there alternatives to a wilderness designation?
SM: There are all kinds of alternatives to wilderness. We can design one that specifically fits an area. For example, we can have a back country area that allows the tools the agencies need to manage the land; we can allow areas for shared use for motorized and mechanized. We can have non-motorized areas; we can have areas where people can experience solitude. We can have it all. The only thing that stands in our way is the willingness to move away from the 'wilderness or nothing' thought. If we put that aside, and we sit down at a table and go, okay, how are we going to provide all this in this landscape, we can make that happen.

BR: Doesn't CIEDRA essentially do that?
SM: I would submit to you that there has been more 'take' than 'give.' There are a couple of trails that are left out, but there are a majority of them that are closed.

It limits the agency's ability to manage the land. It lets Mother Nature take over. There are bugs in that part of the country. Those trees need to be cut, and wilderness doesn't allow that. It is just not necessary. There is no compelling reason to designate the Boulders Wilderness. Who is yelling? Who is screaming? Who is begging Congressman Simpson to do this? I think there are a couple of organizations that support it. Other than that, there is no one else.

Now, I will grant you that he has garnered the support of people who have historically opposed wilderness, but that is because of the buy-offs and the give-aways, and those people, those rural communities in Idaho, are struggling mightily. There is no question about it. There is a need to help them. Wilderness, we do not believe, is the answer. You get a short term bail-out, but long term you have wilderness, and that means less motorized, less mechanized, less tourism.

BR: Do you ever see a situation where the idea of wilderness can be sufficiently watered down to satisfy enough people in the 21st century?
SM: What you are talking about is called affectionately 'wilderness light,' and I don't think that is ever going to happen. I think the Wilderness Act as written in 1964 had a specific purpose and a specific need. It is not that it doesn't have value, because this is land where it is like a bench mark, and we can look at it and see what happens. So I think there is a value to wilderness. The question is, how much? And if we're done with wilderness, what is the next choice? Why not some alternatives to wilderness?

BR: So you're not opposed to the concept of wilderness?
SM: No. I think what we have is sufficient. We don't need any more, and to continue to piecemeal and to take bites away at the public land only constrains you to smaller and smaller areas, and takes away the ability of the average Idahoan to get out there and use and love the public lands in a responsible way.

I think that there is a place to let Mother Nature rule, and we have 4.5 million acres of that. I don't think that the people of this state are poor land managers. I think we're very good at managing the land. We're not out there to destroy it. We're out there to use it and to protect it. We know a lot more in 2010 than we did in 1964 about managing land. We're a lot better at it. And if, in fact, the day ever comes when some of those federal lands are turned over to the state, there is no question in my mind that the people of Idaho are qualified to manage those lands.

BR: Are we becoming a nation of motorheads?
SM: For a couple of reasons. One, I think that the population is getting older, and people still want to enjoy those beautiful back country scenes, and that is the way they get there. Two, it is a lot of fun. And folks who think that it is an easy thing to do, it is an aerobic sport, let me tell you! First time I got on a snowmobile, I couldn't believe how tired I was and how sore my muscles were. You try muscling one of those big machines. It is a lot of fun and people enjoy it. They get to see the back country, and as long as they do it in a responsible way, they should be allowed to do it.

A group of motorbike riders riding through a forest in the wildernessBR: What do you think we've learned since 1964, since the passage of the Wilderness Act?
SM: I think it is a continual learning process. For example, the filming issue that came up recently. I think people were amazed to find out that wilderness is that restrictive. I think it has been incremental, that we have come to learn exactly what wilderness is, and I think that is important because, before you decide you want more wilderness, you better understand what it is.

BR: What were your thoughts when you first saw that story about no filming in the wilderness?
SM: I guess I understand somewhat what the Wilderness Act means, and it does mean man apart from nature, no foot print, and so any use needs to be carefully scrutinized to make sure that it meets the needs of the Act, that it is not just a convenience for us. I respect wilderness, and I would be one of those people who would say, you live by the rules that are in the Wilderness Act.

BR: What was the thinking of your group when you came up with that very effective media campaign blasting CIEDRA?
SM: We knew the bill was being rewritten in the Senate and that we hadn't seen a copy of it, and we look at the timeline and you go. whoa, there's an election coming up in November, and politics could change drastically in Washington, so if they are going to try to move that bill, they are going to have to move it quickly, and so we determined that we needed to get involved.

We also were very concerned that, because of the makeup of Washington, that we had very little opportunity to change and to stop that legislation. We started with a media campaign. We did a poll, we did more media, and we told people what was in the bill, and we asked them to think about it and to look at it. It was never a call to action. It was educational, telling folks what CIEDRA is and alerting them that it is likely to move; and we have worked very tirelessly on getting that message out and letting people know.

I have heard nothing but positive comments. I have been on a number of talk shows in the 2nd District, and all the calls that come in are people supporting the position that the Idaho Recreation Council has taken. The complexion of the entire debate changed when Governor Otter sent the letter to Senators Risch and Crapo.

BR: Some might suggest you've learned a few things from the environmental community, about coming in at the last minute and blowing things up.
SM: That is almost too funny because when this started, when the whole CIEDRA issue started, and I think it has been ten years ago, I was involved from the start. I worked, I represented it – first, the Idaho State Snowmobile Association, and later we became the Idaho Recreation Council and brought all the groups together, so I have been involved.

Once the bill got to the Senate, we heard nothing, and we were not involved. We had no idea about the changes that had been made to the bill or anything about the bill. In fact, I didn't see a copy of the bill until maybe a week before it was introduced. So if we are at the last minute, it is only because that is where we were left. And Senator Crapo in April sat me down in Washington and said, I'm going to introduce the bill, and I was sort of taken aback; but he said he was, we talked about it, he explained it to me, and that was on a Tuesday. On Friday I got a call from his office saying they were introducing it on Friday, and we had just seen the bill shortly before that. So we were not involved in any of the changes that were made in the Senate. We were sort of forced into that position of being left out.

BR: So what advice would you give to the delegation?
SM: It would have been a very good move on their part to take the new Senate bill and shop it around to all the state agencies, to the Governor, to the recreation community. We are players. We do have a stake in it. To the community of Stanley. Show them what was in it. I think that would have been a good idea.

Do I think for a moment that that means everybody would have jumped on board and supported it? No, I don't, and I'm not sure that is a requirement, because this is public land, and we all have a stake in it. It is obligatory on all of us, when we have a sense or a belief, that we stand up and speak it. Now, they can pass that legislation, and we will always say that we did everything we could to stop it. We have that obligation to our members.

I heard someone tell a story one time, and it literally touched me, and I really understood what the meaning of all of this is. And it was a lady who was a dirt motorcycle person, and she was sitting around a campfire after a ride, and an older gentleman was telling stories about when they used to ride in the Seven Devils. And she said, 'I never want to be in that position where I'm telling my kids where I used to ride. I want to show them where I used to ride.'

This is about allowing people to access the public lands. The spectacular mountains – we can't see them all, but those that we can see, we want to provide that opportunity for our children and grandchildren.