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What’s Going on With The Boulder-White Cloud Mountains?

Updated on July 6, 2015
“View of White Clouds from Highway 75.”
“View of White Clouds from Highway 75.” | Source

If you have never been to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, I urge you to get in your car the second you finish this, and drive over there. It is one of the most beautiful parts of Idaho. Many Idahoans enjoy the hiking, snowmobiling, backcountry skiing, and trail biking available in the area. Currently, the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains – the largest unprotected range in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area – has undergone several political struggles for its protection over the last few decades. Should it become a national monument? A national park? A wilderness designation? It’s hard to say.

For 34 years, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and the Wilderness Congressional Study Areas have maintained the status quo, but many individuals and organizations have wanted more protection for these mountains, in which the Boulder-White Clouds lie. In 2004, Mike Simpson introduced into the House of Representatives an act called the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA). This act would form three wilderness areas, release some wilderness study areas, transfer various federal lands to the state and counties, and a whole lot more.

It died in committee. Mike Simpson has introduced this bill in various forms in every congress since. It is in the Committee for Natural Resources right now. According to some estimates, it has a 9% chance to get out of the committee and a 3% chance of becoming law.

In a 2012 TV interview with Greg Hahn, former governor Cecil Andrus said: “The reason we should move to get the Boulder-White Clouds into wilderness protection is every day you wait, every season that goes by, some of the very reasons that it qualifies for wilderness are being destroyed by off-road vehicles, or indiscriminate activities with powered equipment, and it destroys what really makes it possible to fit into a wilderness situation. So it's very important that that takes place now. The time is now.”

That was three years ago and it didn't make it, not even close.

Something very incredible and magnificent happened over the last 100 million years in what we now call Central Idaho. A group of connected mountain ranges were formed that are some of the most majestic and scenic on this planet. Around 51 million years ago, there was an 11 million year period of volcanic activity in which time basalt and rhyolite lava erupted and covered a mountainous layer of sedimentary rock that had formed in ancient seas 250 million years ago. This volcanic activity – known as the Challis volcanics – formed rocks of various colors including light green, lavender, and other pastels.

During the Earth's last ice age, glaciers formed the mountains we see today: the sharp ridges separating the valleys, the saddles between the peaks, the U-shaped valleys. None of these features are as pronounced as in the Sawtooth Mountains and the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains. The glaciers also formed the myriad lakes – 120 of these lakes alone in the Boulder-White Clouds.

In the late 60's, recreational users of the White Clouds noticed helicopters hauling construction materials to the base of Castle Peak. Upon further investigation, it was learned that the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) had obtained 51 mining claims and were planning to start open pit mining for the major ore deposit of molybdenum. Governor at the time, Don Samuelson supported anything do with logging or whatever else that would enhance Idaho's resource economy. Many of the local residents of Custer County supported the project too, though short sighted, because many of them were going to earn a decent wage for a few decades. However, lots of other people were totally aghast that the government would let a corporate mining company destroy some of the most beautiful wilderness left on this Earth.

A man named Ernie Day was one of the first people to document the development in the White Clouds. Then chairman of Idaho Parks, he resigned his position under great fanfare when Governor Samuelson refused to regard the molybdenum mining claims as a negative affront to the mountains. Ernie Day took aerial photos of Castle Peak and had an artist overlay a portrayal of what an open-pit mine would look like ten years after the mining company started digging.

Isn’t it pretty?
Isn’t it pretty? | Source

This photo got the attention of a lot of concerned citizens, who immediately started forming to fight against the mine. The Greater Sawtooth Preservation Council was one of the organizations, and they in turn enlisted the help of all sorts of others, such as garden clubs, bird watching groups, and hunting and fishing organizations.

The executives of ASARCO told the populace that once they finished extracting the molybdenum, the open pit mine would become a beautiful lake suitable for boating and recreating. Boyd Norton of the Greater Sawtooth Preservation Council heard this, so he went over to the Henderson molybdenum mine near Leadville, Colorado, and took some photos of their tailings pond. As he described in an interview from 2012, “That was certainly no recreation lake. It was a pile of sludge and muck and who knows what the mixture was that went into that of heavy metals and all kinds of carcinogens.”

Next, he took some pictures of Castle Peak, superimposed the photos of the pond at Henderson mine, and asked Idahoans, “Is this what you want for the White Clouds?”

This is what the Leadville Mine tailings pond looks like now after molybdenum mining in Henderson, Colorado. Definitely not suitable for recreating.
This is what the Leadville Mine tailings pond looks like now after molybdenum mining in Henderson, Colorado. Definitely not suitable for recreating. | Source

Just as a side note, the United States produces enough molybdenum to meet all its needs and supply a significant portion of international demand. There is no need to trash this beautiful area of Idaho in order to obtain an already abundant commodity.

Man has populated Central Idaho for over 10,000 years. Ranchers started raising livestock in the Stanley Basin in the late 1800’s, and many of the descendants of the original homesteaders are still ranching today. The fur trappers enjoyed gathering in the Stanley Basin because of its remoteness and seclusion, and while they were plying their trade, gold, silver, and lead were discovered nearby, which lead to an influx of humanity. Mining started in the White Clouds in 1864 when gold was found at Robinson Bar, but due to the extreme winters and the remote location, mining didn't start in earnest until much later.

At the same time and into the 20th Century, Idahoans started visiting the area for hunting, fishing and recreation. Then during the Great Depression, 1933-1941, the Civilian Conservation Corps built Forest Service buildings, roads, trails, and campgrounds, which encouraged more recreational use.

Man has been mining the minerals of the Earth for millennia. Once the Industrial Revolution commenced, the methods of mining changed. The machines got bigger and more powerful and were capable of destroying huge tracts of land, rendering that land forever useless in exchange for the unsustainable gathering of the wealth trapped below. As coal-mining companies were formed by large corporations with no interest in anything but their bottom line, they wreaked havoc on the environment. They tore down mountains, destroyed wildlife habitat, and polluted the streams and ground water. The coal mining companies are still at it today.

In Idaho, there is no lack of destruction on the environment due to mining. You can see the transition from individual prospector to corporate mining as you move around this beautiful part of the state. When walking into the White Cloud Mountains via Fisher Creek, you will come upon an old mine…the Aztec Mine. There are the remnants of a prospector's cabin, thick with moss, a few fence posts still standing, a place that looks like it could have been a garden space. The whole area is thickly forested with deer grazing nearby. In comparison, you may drive up the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River and see the devastation caused by the dredging of the canyon for its gold by corporate mining.

I’ve seen this with my own eyes, back in 2004 when driving through Custer County. There are great mounds of river rock strewn along the entire canyon floor. No vegetation, no wildlife habitat. Just huge piles of rubble. I can only imagine what that canyon looked like before the gold-diggers got to it. The dredge is still sitting out there as well, so I’ve seen the inside too, and it just as terrifying a machine as the name makes it sound.

There are many citizens who now believe that some of the beautiful places that exist in Central Idaho are more important and worth more to humanity than the minerals that can be extracted from below the surface.

Molybdenum is used as an industrial lubricant and as a strengthening additive to the steel making process. According to Hardrock Mining, to extract this mineral, a mining company must first remove the 400 to 600 feet of dirt, called the “overburden”. In Idaho, this overburden contains an abundance of pyrite, which produces sulfuric acid when exposed to water and air. As we all know, sulfuric acid is not very beneficial to life, especially not with the trout and salmon that live in the pristine rivers of the area. For that reason, the mining companies have always promised to haul the overburden to a dumpsite, usually in the canyon on the other side of the pit where it will be buried and never be exposed to air. That is never. Never, ever.

However, once the company gets down to the molybdenum, it is only 2% of the dirt they collect and the other 98% is what they call “waste” which then gets hauled off and dumped in the next canyon.

After the mine has given up all its treasure (usually up to thirty years), or if the price of molybdenum falls and the mine closes, the mining company executives truly believe that the pit will slowly fill with water and eventually become as beautiful as any high mountain lake.

Hopefully they are the only ones who believe that. Remember that sulfuric acid that was never going to form and get into the watershed? The only sure way to make sure that happens is to leave the molybdenum where it is. “Putting an open pit mine into an area is the ultimate desecration of a place,” Norton claims.

The for and against debate on open-pit mining in Central Idaho is just part of the political struggle of protecting the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains that has been going on for decades. Because now comes the next question: What to do with the land that would create permanent and official protection, not only against commercial mining, but also other threats?

At the time, there were some really tacky housing developments getting started in the Sawtooth Valley. Many were of mind to keep the entire area in the rustic and rural tradition in which it was founded, by preventing the old homesteaded ranches from sub-dividing. The idea of making the Sawtooths into a national park was first proposed in 1911, and the Park Service wanted to pursue this.

The Forest Service, on the other hand, wanted to implement a relatively new concept of a National Recreation Area. Both agencies sent advance parties into the area to sell their proposals to the local people.

I have always considered the Park Service and the Forest Service as government agencies working for the same good, but that is not always the case. Fact is, they have a historical competitive relationship with two different sets of objectives and missions. Both were dead set on getting this land under their individual jurisdiction.

To find out which organization would be the best to move the protection of the White Clouds forward, I sought the opinion of Dr. John Freemuth, professor of political science at Boise State University.

“In an idealized sense, someone would say the Park Service,” he told me. “But if the National Monument proclamation is specific about what should be done, somewhat like the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, there’s no reason that the Forest Service couldn’t do a very good job.”

“So what do you think would be the best option?” I wanted to know.

“I think the reason this national monument idea has come up is because Mike Simpson has tried a number of times” – nine, in fact – “to get a Wilderness bill passed and it’s been blocked in Congress.”

The Park Service sent a man named Paul Fritz as their legislative contact in the Sawtooth Valley. He later became the monument superintendent for the Craters of the Moon. The Forest Service sent a man named Tom Kovalicky, who, once the SNRA was formed, became the first manager. He took the best parts of the Forest Service and the best parts of the Park Service and formed a new type of organizational structure to specifically manage the SNRA.

As much as the Park Service wanted to create a national park, Paul Fritz could not convince Idahoans that giving up hunting on the land would be desirable or beneficial to them. Also, the general public did not like the idea of a park that would attract multitudes of visitors, and they also didn't like the idea of Park Rangers wearing Smokey The Bear hats, giving guided tours, and telling the hikers to stay on the trails.

Once the politicians realized that the Forest Service would be administering an NRA, Senator Frank Church, Senator Len Jordan, and Representative Orval Hansen knew they had to write a piece of legislation that might represent the pinnacle of all their careers. They were successful with the drafting of Public Law 92-400, which was the result of a four-year debate to decide the fate of the White Clouds:

  • Sec 10. “Subject to valid existing rights, all Federal lands located in the recreation area are herby withdrawn from all forms of location, entry, and patent under the mining laws of the United States.”
  • Sec 12. “Patents shall not hereafter be issued for locations and claims heretofore made in the recreation area under the mining laws of the United States.”

217,000 acres in the Sawtooth Mountains became the Sawtooth Wilderness by being incorporated into the National Wilderness Preservation System. Unfortunately, the White Clouds did not receive the same protections, but instead was designated a Congressional Wilderness Study Area. The intent was to conduct the study and then – in a timely fashion – include the White Clouds in the Wilderness Preservation System. Thirty years later, the Boulder-White Clouds are still waiting for Wilderness protection.

“I think there’s a lot of support for it,” Dr. Freemuth continued. “There’s a few people with a lot of money in certain interests that have been able to block it successfully. This is sort of a second option. You can’t make Wilderness through a national monument proclamation; only Congress can do that. But the proclamation could make it pretty clear that the number one task there is resource protection, and some sort of visitor enjoyment.”

In 1969, when photographer Jan Boles heard of the mining exploration around Boulder Chain Lakes, he decided to trek in and investigate. What he found amazed him. ASARCO was core sample drilling and dumping the effluent directly into the lakes. The once crystal clear lake was now milky and cloudy. Timber had been cut to clear a large area for helicopters and a bulldozer was clearing land for the drill sites, and a mining camp had been built.

Jan Boles took his photos and report to Sam Day at the Intermountain Observer who sent them to other journalists. Finally, the message started to get out.

Governor Don Samuelson made it clear to everyone that he favored giving ASARCO the necessary permits to start mining. He is quoted as saying: “The good Lord never intended us to lock up our resources.”

When the public started an outcry to stop molybdenum mining in the White Clouds, Governor Samuelson made it clear again that the Forest Service should have issued the permits to ASARCO without making the process public. He stated at the Western Governor's Conference, “It’s the Forest Service’s fault. If they had gone ahead and issued the mining permit, there would be no controversy.”

Of course, had the Forest Service done that, the base of Castle Peak would have been turned into an industrial site complete with noise pollution, air pollution, water pollution…all without the opinion and input from the people who cared the most about this lovely alpine environment.

Governor Samuelson was voted out of office in 1980, some say because of this very issue. He was replaced by Cecil Andrus, who was against mining in the White Clouds, and an advocate for a bill that would protect the entire Sawtooth region. Governor Andrus said, “The good Lord didn't put us here to change what we have. We were put here to enjoy it, but to also make certain that we didn't alter or destroy it.”

“Frog Lake with Castle Peak in the background.”
“Frog Lake with Castle Peak in the background.” | Source

Mining on existing claims are still allowed, but only if they do not “substantially impair” the SNRA's “natural, scenic, pastoral, and fish and wildlife values.” The SNRA bill includes “mineral entry withdrawal”, which means the right to patent mining claims was withdrawn. This is important to keep miners from staking new claims. ASARCO's 51 mining claims are still valid. Mining is still a threat until ASARCO's claims are either bought out and voided or dealt with in some other way.

There is a confusing and telling footnote to the successful fight to stop the molybdenum mine at the base of Castle Peak, and that is the story of a molybdenum mine that had started production just on the other side of the Salmon River in 1983, just 11 years after the passing of Public Law 92-400. Also according to Hardrock Mining, the Thompson Creek mine is an open pit mining operation covering 3,000 acres of which the mining company paid $5.00 an acre. This mine employs 60 people and has created a massive waste dump. Everything that is happening at the Thompson Creek mine is feared to happen at the base of Castle Peak.

Here is proof positive that open pit molybdenum mining destroys the environment: This mine completely obliterated two formally beautiful canyons and is producing acid drainage. In 1998, the Forest Service reported: “New material is continually being placed over the lower (acidic) material causing the potential acid producing material to be buried throughout the entire embankment.”

Material in place for 18 months has a pH of 3.3. A pH of 3.0 will kill all aquatic life. It has only gotten worse since then, and it raises the question of why the people of Idaho would fight so steadfastly to save the Salmon River from molybdenum mining at Castle Peak only to let it happen a stone throw away.

Getting a bill passed through Congress was a monumental feat, as Orval Hansen explained in an interview with Bruce Reichert in the summer of 2012. Representative Hansen authored and introduced a bill into the House; the bill that eventually was signed into law by the President. Once the bill was introduced, it was sent to the Interior Committee and they toured the area, held hearings in both Idaho and Washington DC, and sent it back to the House to be passed. Once it went to the Senate, Russ Brown, the President of the Greater Sawtooth Preservation Council along with Senator Church, insisted that the bill include “mineral entry withdrawal”, which would keep miners from staking new claims in the SNRA. It passed into law on August 22nd, 1972.

Other than not including the White Clouds as Wilderness, the SNRA bill did everything it intended. It stopped mining interests and kept the White Clouds from becoming an industrial zone. It also created scenic easements and kept the Sawtooth Valley from being filled with houses.

Even though most everyone involved thinks CIEDRA is a good idea, they can also realize that Congress has been so dysfunctional lately that there is a very good possibility this bill will never become a law. Since Congress is the only governmental body authorized to form wilderness designations, the good people of Idaho will have to come up with an alternative if they want to protect the Boulder-White Clouds, as was planned in the Public Law 92-400.

Some say that National Monument status would be an acceptable alternative to Wilderness designation. For an area to achieve National Monument status, it only needs the approval and the signature of the President. “The Sawtooth, Boulder-White Clouds, and the East Fork of the Salmon River country together comprise some of Idaho's best remaining salmon, steel head, and bull trout habitat, all species that have been listed under the Endangered Species Act since the Sawtooth NRA was established,” said Bethine Church, wife of Senator Frank Church who founded the Sawtooth Society, in her article “National Monument Needed to Protect Boulder-White Clouds” that appeared this November in the Idaho Mountain Express. “National monument designation is the most promising avenue to achieve the recovery and protection of these native fish.”

I talked to Dani Mazzotta, an enthusiastic member of the Idaho Conservation League branch in Ketchum. On the phone, she explained how her organization has been working tirelessly in the pursuit of obtaining the national monument status for the Boulder-White Clouds. “They have been organizing public forums to explain the benefits and get feedback from the public,” she said. “The public meeting in Ketchum on November 20th was far more positive than the one in Stanley on November 7th.”

In Stanley, the participants were divided up into groups of five to discuss their concerns and fears and then they presented an overview of the overall opinion. The main consensus was concern for the unknown. Many participants in the Stanley meeting believed that if National Monument status is achieved, it would be a gateway to creating a national park, and no one in Stanley wants a national park in their backyard.

The meeting in Ketchum was much more upbeat, mainly due to the attendance of many members of the Wood River Bicycle Coalition. These activists are enthusiastic supporters of National Monument status over other options due to the fact that single track mechanized vehicles (bicycles) will still be allowed access to the area.

Some of Idaho's hunting and fishing groups – the Ada County Fish and Game League, the Wildlife Federation, the Idaho Chukar Foundation, and the National Wildlife Federation – have formed a new group called Sportsmen for Boulder-White Clouds to press the Obama Administration for the protection of the mountains as a national monument. The Wildlands Alliance Group, the Wilderness Society, and so many other organizations advocate for a national monument as well.

It seems that only a few of the Sawtooth Valley locals have a cautionary tone. I also talked to Bob Hayes of the Sawtooth Society on the phone, and he firmly expressed the opinion of “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” He thinks that the SNRA has been doing a pretty good job managing the area for the last 40 years. “Even though Thompson Creek was opened to molybdenum mining, the mining companies were not going to be allowed into the SNRA,” he informed. “So, we should stay with the status quo until we can pass a Wilderness bill, which would be superior to national monument status.”

He knows everyone agrees with him in that respect, but in the meantime he doesn't feel the urgency for them to pass something he considers inferior.

Rick Johnson of the Idaho Conservation League in Boise went to Washington, DC on December 2nd, 2013, lobbying for the passage of a national monument. He feels the urgency to get the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains protected immediately.

Former Governor Cecil Andrus, along with former state Representative Wendy Jaquet, have been appearing in the Idaho Statesman in support for National Monument status. Dani Mazzotta of the Idaho Conservation League is still organizing public forums to generate support for the same status as well. All the sporting organizations – be they hunters, cyclists, or backpackers – are also endorsing the national monument.

With all this public approval you would think that National Monument status for the Boulder-White Clouds would be automatic. As we saw with CIEDRA, all the positive public opinion in the world doesn't get a wilderness bill through Congress. Unfortunately. Also, the President's signature is not on a document designating National Monument status. So, those of us who want to keep Idaho's wild land wild can take solace with Bob Hayes’ words, “The SNRA Law has worked out pretty well for the last 40 years.”

If nothing else happens in Washington, the worst that can happen is we stay with Public Law 92-400, which is a pretty good law.

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