The Scotchman Peaks area of the Kootenai National Forest has for years been recommended for congressional approval as a wilderness. In October, the local forest supervisor decided to strip away that status and rename the area "wild lands" in a revised forest management plan.
Management strategies to end road building in North Idaho's heavily used forests could also be overturned this year, thanks to the Bush Administration policy reopening debate on what to do with those lands.
President George W. Bush, a couple of summers back, stomped on the Roadless Area Conservation Rule left behind in the Oval Office as a last-minute surprise from Bill Clinton.
Clinton's roadless rule -- intended to protect the remaining 58.5 million acres of America's least messed-with forests -- seemed a perfect illustration of national forest management. There were 600 public meetings around the nation. There were 4 million written comments, which ran about 95 percent in favor of keeping the identified lands as roadless.
But Bush has decided that not all the right people have been heard. So the administration has created a new process, which allows county commissioners around the West to have the biggest say in national forest management.
In this process, groups of 30 to 60 people have attended meetings and testified before county commissioners or filled out a supplied form. The commissioners summarize the comments and make recommendations to the states' governors, who in turn pass them on to the Forest Service.
And this is not a show of hands.
"The final document will not be who shows up the most and who has the loudest voice," says Marcia Phillips, chair of the Bonner County Board of Commissioners.
What criteria do county commissioners use to make a recommendation? Well, that's fuzzy. Just how much weight the recommendations have when they finally hit the desk of Mark Rey, undersecretary of agriculture, is also not known.
In Bonner County, where a final public hearing is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 12, from 4-6 pm at the Community Hall in Sandpoint, the commissioners will balance the public comment with the existing forest management plan, Phillips says.
The forest plan largely supports roadless areas.
The Bonner County example raises the question of who's in charge. Many forest management plans have protections in place for the relative tidbit of wild or roadless or almost-roadless areas that are left in the national forests. And all of these management plans have been adopted in a process that includes significant public comment, while management practices have been tempered by lawsuits from industry and environmentalists.
So is all that to be tossed aside?
That's the feeling east of Sandpoint, where Scotchman Peak (on the Idaho/Montana border) recently lost "recommended wilderness" status.
Forest manager Bob Castaneda "made an executive decision to eliminate the whole category of wilderness. It became a new category called 'Wild Lands,'" says Phil Hough of Friends of Scotchman Peaks.
This is more than a word change, Hough says. "Recommended wilderness" has decades of history in Congress. In fact, the Scotchman Peaks area has long been proposed as a wilderness area. In the federal RARE II process in the mid-1970s, Scotchman Peaks garnered 3,000 letters of support as a wilderness -- more than anyplace else in the country at that time.
The remote portion of the Cabinets has been managed as a wilderness area since 1991, awaiting congressional approval.
But every bill it has been attached to (as a little piece of a far bigger pie) has never made it out of Congress alive.
Hough says supporters have not lost hope that Scotchman Peak will eventually win wilderness status. Though surprised at Castaneda's reversal, Hough says many residents of northeast Idaho and northwest Montana favor wilderness for Scotchman and have come to consensus among themselves.
They plan to speak up when the draft of the revised forest plan comes up for public comment in February. The stickiest debate seems to be between conservationists and snowmobile groups who fear losing access to riding trails.
This is true in when it comes to other unroaded areas in the Kootenai or Idaho Panhandle national forests. Rural economies have changed, and the fight is less between timber and environment and more between conservation and motorized recreation.
Phillips, the Bonner County commissioner, also notes the change. As a California transplant, she is part of it. The county commissioners "do have an interest in our economy," she says. "But we also are interested in the ongoing health of our part of the country."
When it comes to wild lands, she says, "The Northwest is one of the last frontiers. It's important to note we have been discovered and people are coming for natural beauty -- and these people can afford it and don't depend on a job -- but we don't want to lose people who have been stewards of the land for decades."
Local attitudes toward designated wilderness have evolved, Friends of the Scotchman's Hough says.
"Loggers, ranchers and large land owners see value in protecting what's left. They see the quality of life reflected in wilderness areas as what keeps them here," Hough says.
And what draws newcomers. "Our economy is not growing with the logging industry, but in tourists and second-homers," Hough says. "If we want to have a strong economy, we need to protect those quality-of-life factors."
The deadline for public comments is Jan. 17 in Kootenai, Bonner and Shoshone counties. There were no public hearings scheduled in Boundary or Benewah counties.