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.
Bruce Reichert: How have wilderness proposals changed since those first ones in the 1960s?
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.
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?
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?
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.
BR: What is your perception of the Owyhee Initiative and the wilderness in that bill?
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?
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?
BR: Doesn't CIEDRA essentially do that?
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?
BR: So you're not opposed to the concept of wilderness?
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?
BR: What do you think we've learned since 1964, since the passage of the Wilderness Act?
BR: What were your thoughts when you first saw that story about no filming in the wilderness?
BR: What was the thinking of your group when you came up with that very effective media campaign blasting CIEDRA?
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.
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?
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.