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Steve Botti, Mayor of the City of Stanley, moderated this panel to explore the challenges facing the Sawtooth NRA in the next 50 years, specifically examining whether it will be feasible to maintain a rural and pastoral lifestyle in the Sawtooth Valley in harmony with outdoor recreation, natural, and historic values; whether it will be possible to preserve quality recreation experiences; and whether U.S. Forest Service management will be adequate to avoid substantial impairment of the scenic, natural, historical, and fish and wildlife values referenced in the Sawtooth NRA legislation.
Jeff Clegg, General Manager of Redfish Lake Lodge, opened the discussion by asserting what the goal of recreation-oriented businesses should be,
Share this beautiful area with anyone who wants to come, but do it in a very careful way that protects all of the environmental concerns that are being impacted by [so] many people.
The crowding and difficulty of finding available parking at Redfish Lake, especially on or near weekends, need to be managed and controlled in a way that allows the appropriate number of people to come and to share in the spectacular setting of Redfish Lake. At the same time, it is necessary to recognize that there’s going to be a limit to increasing use levels. Clegg believes that the Sawtooth NRA, at some point, will have to set carrying capacities to preserve quality experiences.
He also predicted that it will become increasingly difficult to find a place for employees to live in an affordable way, and to attract competent people to provide quality service to visitors. This is a problem faced by many local businesses and the solution will require continued effort by both private businesses and local government.
Clegg observed that 50 years ago, the impact of social media on tourism and recreation businesses was not anticipated. Now, it is challenging to manage and respond to information and opinions that can be instantly posted and broadcast. Marketing of Redfish Lake and management of visitor experiences need to be done in an integrated way. Other businesses in the area face the same social media and marketing issues, and these affect visitor expectations and behavior.
Maintaining a stable business environment when faced with frequent changes in U.S. Forest Service management and staff also presents challenges, especially for leaseholders like Redfish Lake Lodge and permit holders like outfitters. Consistency in relationships builds trust and is important in responding to the increasing demand for visitor services. Clegg finds that it is frustrating to gain momentum with someone and then have that momentum thwarted when personnel changes occur.
Katherine Grohusky, Executive Director of the Sawtooth Society, recalls experiencing the Sawtooth NRA for the first time,
The first time I saw the view from the Church overlook in July of 2019, I cried. I had tears from a homecoming to a place that I’ve never been, and a place I knew I wanted to stay forever, and it was really meaningful to me to see that view from the Church overlook. It’s incredible. So, I’m new but I have this really strong affinity for this particular forest and these mountains.
Grohusky identifies three key threats facing the Sawtooth NRA in the coming 50 years: development pressure, increasing recreational use, and wildfire. She anticipates that future increases in recreational pressure and use will require more public outreach. She suggests that collaborative approaches involving various organizations can provide the resources to be effective. Such an approach could include a program of trailhead stewards who provide a presence at main entry points of the Sawtooth NRA to contact visitors and provide information.
Justin Hayes, Executive Director of the Idaho Conservation League, cites cultural change as a major issue for the future of the Sawtooth NRA. He explains that the Federal government needs to do a better job engaging Native American Tribes in co-management and land ownership, emphasizing that it’s important to give voice to and amplify the needs and the rights of the Tribes that have for too long been ignored.
Fish and wildlife are a key value for the Sawtooth NRA. Hayes considers what local management can do to improve habitat and ensure future survival of the fish, even if the critical management activities, like removal of the four Lower Snake River dams, are not under the purview of the Sawtooth NRA.
Wildlife is one of the iconic values that the public especially enjoys, so preservation of habitat and wildlife populations will be critical to the future recreation experiences. As such, Hayes believes that wolf management is a key future challenge for the Sawtooth NRA. He recalled that shortly after wolf reintroduction, visitors had the opportunity to hear wolves howl when they were camping in the Sawtooth NRA. If they were lucky, they might even see wolves. That is becoming incredibly uncommon. Hayes believes that the way in which the state is managing wildlife in the Sawtooth NRA, especially wolves, is denying wolves their role in the ecosystem, and it’s denying all of the visitors who come to the Sawtooth NRA the opportunity to see wolves and to see the natural interactions between predator and prey. Hayes urged,
If we don’t protect the fish and wildlife that are on this landscape, we are really missing something. It is the fish and wildlife in combination with the splendor of this area that make it so special.
Hayes observed that the outfitter and guide community provides a high-quality recreation experience within the Sawtooth NRA. Maintaining access to outfitter and guide services is an important goal for preserving traditional Sawtooth NRA use and for providing quality experiences that otherwise might not be available to many people. Hayes explained,
I think that the outfitting-guiding community is an important part of the overall stewardship of the Sawtooth NRA. They’re skilled, talented people who introduce Idaho’s special places to folks who may not have skills, the capacity to do it on their own. And they’re also a pretty important part of the search and rescue component for the Sawtooth NRA. As use expands, we’re seeing a lot of people getting in a lot of trouble. They’ve got technology and they’re calling for help, and, in many times, outfitters and guides are sort of the first responders out there. They also play a critical role in identifying problems and [helping with] trail maintenance and also just as part of the local economy.
Hayes expressed concern that solitude will become a scarce resource in the future and resource impacts will increase. The Forest Service will need to consider limiting visitor use in some areas to preserve solitude and prevent overuse from substantially impacting resource values.
Steve Smith, Custer County Commissioner, weighed in on the value of collaboration and on some areas of disagreement. He anticipates that multiple use management and giving proper consideration to different points of view will continue to be important strategies for the Sawtooth NRA in the future. Congress and the U.S. Forest Service will need to continue to fund and strengthen collaborative management efforts, like Resource Advisory Committees, to balance protection goals.
The Sawtooth NRA mandate to preserve both pastoral and wildlife values can create conflicts. Smith explained such a conflict,
[A person] can hear all the wolves howling he wants, right next to my dead cow, but the thing that we’re really dealing with here is Sawtooth NRA [and] the challenges with the different viewpoints on multiple use on public lands…
The use of private lands within the Sawtooth NRA is an issue that Smith identified as a source of disagreement. The U.S. Forest Service purchased easements on many of the private lands, and the interpretation of permissible activities and private property rights have, in some cases, become contentious. To further complicate things, private lands within the Sawtooth NRA are subject to county planning and zoning ordinances, the easements were not all written at the same time or in the same way, and different rules apply to different properties. The Sawtooth NRA and the County will have to work together to manage these private lands.
Smith also identified public safety and wildfire response as growing challenges in the future. He warns that, on a busy weekend like 4th of July, there are about 20,000 cars going into the Redfish Lake area. That translates into about 40,000 to 60,000 people. A fast-moving wildfire in that area would present serious safety and evacuation challenges. This is an issue that also will require careful planning and coordination between the Sawtooth NRA and the County.
Smith observed that the Sawtooth NRA was not expecting or prepared for the great increase in demand for camping and recreation that occurred in response to COVID-19. This demonstrates how quickly changes can occur. Environmental impacts such as the possible invasion of zebra mussels could quickly and drastically change recreation at Redfish Lake and affect the environmental protection goals for the Sawtooth NRA.
Angenie McCleary, Blaine County Commissioner, shared some of Custer County Commissioner Steve Smith’s views. She believes that the U.S. Forest must continue to utilize collaborative outreach to forge its vision and achieve consensus on management initiatives. She agrees that Resource Advisory Committees play an essential role as do other collaborative initiatives, such as the Sawtooth Valley Wildland Fire Collaborative, tribal involvement, and coordination between Custer and Blaine counties. This outreach needs to establish common ground among the business community, the non-profit community, Federal land managers, and elected officials.
McCleary is concerned that the rapid population growth in Blaine County is bringing in people who lack the cultural background to understand how to safely recreate in the Sawtooth NRA and the Wilderness. This challenge will require an increase in education, interpretation, and public outreach services by the Sawtooth NRA and its cooperators.
Kirk Flannigan, Area Ranger, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Sawtooth National Forest, acknowledges that the Sawtooth NRA has experienced a large increase in visitation and recreation use over the past few years. Between 2015 and 2020, survey data reveals that site visits increased by 87%, developed campground use increased by 17%, day use increased by 44%, and Wilderness use increased by 89%. Surveys indicate that many people feel that crowding is a concern, especially in front-country areas. Flannigan discusses his concern about the popularity of key sites, such as Redfish, Stanley, Alice, and Toxaway Lakes,
I see concentrations of individuals in specific locations…those highly used areas where we have significant impact of individuals that go there and, really, that’s the focus [of] where they want to be. That’s a direct impact… The indirect impact [is] those folks that are being displaced and going to other areas that are less visited. And you see this a lot in our lake system on the Sawtooth Front, where we now are seeing crowding… I don’t know if we can get ahead of it.
The impacts of this displacement need to be analyzed and the Sawtooth NRA travel management plans need to be updated. Managing this level of use in the future will require partnerships with local conservation and educational organizations. The U.S. Forest Service believes that the number and type of facilities, such as trails and campgrounds, are about right, but they need to be upgraded and maintained. At some point, it may be necessary to impose a permit system or fee to control use and balance resource protection with recreation opportunity. Flannigan sees the need to increase staff to successfully manage the Sawtooth NRA’s facilities and to monitor the impacts associated with increasing visitation.