Rising 11,815 feet above sea level, the imposing bulk of Castle Peak dominates neighboring summits in the White Cloud Mountains. Ringed by more than 20 glacial lakes and heavy smears of lodgepole pine, Castle Peak holds picturesque stripes of snow through the summer. This mountain is the heart of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, 756,000 acres of timelessly beautiful mountains, rivers and ranchlands.
With a mountain at its heart, the SNRA's pulse is found in the 217,000-acre Sawtooth Wilderness with its achingly beautiful serrated granite ridges and prolific wildflower meadows. It can be sensed in the annual thrum of salmon and steelhead returning more than 900 miles and 6,500 vertical feet—the world's longest and hardest salmon migration—to spawn, die and renew the circle of life. It can be felt in pastoral valleys where conservation easements protect its bucolic heritage. And it can be witnessed on the precipitous slopes of the Boulder Mountains, where North America's southernmost indigenous mountain goats dance across impossible-looking cliff faces.
But if it weren't for Castle Peak, Idaho's first national recreation area might not exist. It's a mountain that became a battleground that made and crushed careers. If it weren't for this behemoth and the massive lode of molybdenum tucked neatly in its belly, the story of central Idaho's wild heart might look very different. Huge trucks might work into and out of the White Clouds, forests might be logged and the Sawtooth Valley most certainly would be peppered with sprawling homes and businesses.
"This is Idaho's iconic landscape, and it has always been Idaho's iconic landscape," reflected Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League. "Forty years ago the pieces fell together when things were very challenging. It was done the Idaho way. Idaho's conservative and conservation values, for that period of time, came together. It's when we went from being a colony to a state, when we decided to own our legacy. And that is really about Castle Peak."
It was February 1969. A crisp wind swept the streets of Idaho Falls on the eastern edge of the Snake River Plain, where 35 men and women met in a cozy living room to consider the bleak fate for the wilds of central Idaho. During the preceding summer, hikers had discovered helicopters and drilling rigs ringing Castle Peak, as well as a mining camp erected at Baker Lake northeast of the scenic monolith. In September 1968, the American Smelting and Refining Co., one of the world's largest mining outfits, issued press releases announcing its discovery of a major molybdenum deposit 400 to 600 feet beneath the earth's surface on the northeast flank of Castle Peak.
The company proposed a strip mine that would consist of a 7,000-foot-long, 300- to 400-foot-deep, 700-foot-wide pit that would process 40 million pounds of ore per day for 20 years. Waste would be stored behind a 400-foot-high dam on Little Boulder Creek, a tributary of the East Fork of the Salmon River. During the life of the mine, some 145 million tons of waste would be deposited in a four- to five-mile-long reservoir behind the dam. The operation would include an access road blasted into the high country from the East Fork, a processing mill, power lines, cabins and offices. One of the wildest and most pristine places in the United States, an area fit for wilderness designation, would be forever changed.
Many of those who met in Idaho Falls that February were scientists working at the nearby National Reactor Testing Station—now called the Idaho National Laboratory—a facility for nuclear research and nuclear waste storage. With sharp minds and penchants for deft analytical work, they committed to a new approach to Idaho conservation by forming the Greater Sawtooth Preservation Council for the sole purpose of protecting central Idaho from the Castle Peak mine. "They brought a new rigor: science, economics, numbers. They brought a new voice to Idaho conservation," said Pat Ford, a protégé of the conservation leaders of the time and now executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, an organization seeking to restore salmon to Idaho's rivers.
Efforts to designate the Sawtooth, White Cloud, Boulder and Pioneer mountain ranges as a national park date back to 1911, but it was the specter of destruction at Castle Peak that revived the idea. With open and staunch support from Gov. Don Samuelson, the mine was moving ahead, while the Greater Sawtooth Preservation Council worked to delay. Practically overnight, the mine became the state's leading news story. "Only five years earlier, news about a mine would have barely caused a ripple," wrote council founding member Boyd Norton in his 1972 book, Snake Wilderness. "But change had been fermenting. A new breed had been arriving during the past decade, many of whom had seen environmental depredations elsewhere and, in moving here, had come to love this unspoiled country for what it was, not for its selling price."
In Boise, a group of anglers and hunters—hook-and-bullet conservationists–also sprang into action. With experience working on a wide range of issues, such as ushering in the Wilderness Act of 1964 and fighting new dams, their wisdom was critical in the fight for the White Clouds. "My dad's friends, the likes of [writer] Ted Trueblood and [real estate agent] Ernie Day, were big hunters and fishers," reflected Bert Bowler, whose father, attorney Bruce Bowler, was a key player among the Boise contingent. "That's really what drove them. It was later on that they took on environmental issues for other reasons as well."
And so was collected an unlikely team of east Idaho scientists, Boise professionals and others scattered throughout the state who shared a common passion for Idaho's most prized landscape. "You had the combination of the younger generation of firebrands from eastern Idaho and the old-time veterans," said Ken Robison, who was editorial page editor for the Idaho Statesman from 1967 to 1977, and whose interest and knowledge of Idaho conservation history runs deep. "The upshot was that they waged a very aggressive campaign against the [mine's] road application and made a great effort to make it a public issue in Idaho. They issued press releases, letters to the editor, distributed facts and figures. Ernie Day, in particular, and the Sawtooth Council were very active."
Further amplifying the matter was Day's unexpected and very public resignation on May 8, 1969, from the Idaho Parks Board in protest of Gov. Samuelson's position on the mine. "Early on, the Forest Service had a hearing on the road application. It was kind of a breakthrough that they decided to have a hearing at all," Robison said. "Gov. Samuelson opened up by endorsing the road and the mine. Ernie Day was the chairman of the state parks board at the time. And he was beside himself at what Samuelson had said. So he denounced the mine, and he said he was resigning the park board in protest of Samuelson's statements."
To preserve the White Clouds, immediate action was needed. During the winter of 1968-69, the miners had halted exploration, but the coming of spring would open the range to resumed activity. John Merriam, the Preservation Council's newly elected president, summed up the crisis: "Unless we act soon, the countdown on the White Clouds is T minus six months for bulldozers." With an initial membership of less than 50 and an operating budget of $125, the Preservation Council was pitifully ill-equipped to challenge a corporate giant that had the sympathetic ear of Gov. Samuelson. But its members had passion assembled beneath the flag of a progressive new organization, and in the summer of 1969 the group proposed a 1.3 million-acre Greater Sawtooth National Park and National Recreation Area. The proposal didn't get traction with elected leaders, but the message was clear: Idaho's conservation community was serious about protecting its mountains.
In August 1970, while the fate of the White Clouds hung in the balance, a young bald-headed politician walked into the Sun Valley Opera House and changed history.
Cecil Andrus had received the Democratic nomination for Idaho governor that May. At the Opera House he joined more than 370 people who converged for a hearing hosted by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation. The Idaho congressional delegation, including renowned Sen. Frank Church—the Senate floor sponsor of the Wilderness Act—had introduced a bill that would create a 756,000-acre National Recreation Area for the Sawtooth, White Cloud and Boulder mountains. Though a national park wasn't the proposal on the table, most of those who testified at the hearing did so in support of one. In the committee's history, only two hearings created as much of a stir: North Cascades and Redwood national parks.
That's the day Andrus publicly declared his opposition to the Castle Peak mine and his support for a national park, creating a defining chasm between himself and incumbent Gov. Samuelson. That's the day Andrus formed an essential platform plank that helped propel him into the governor's office.
Andrus' appearance these days is that of a statesman, but his manicured tailoring belies his humble beginning in Idaho politics. "Cece," as he's known in the state, is a north Idaho timber man from Clearwater County who describes himself with typical self-deprecating humor as a "political accident." But Andrus is Idaho's only four-term governor, and his four years as U.S. Secretary of the Interior under President Jimmy Carter made him the first Idahoan to serve in a presidential cabinet. And he was the first Idaho governor—in fact first Western governor—to be elected on an environmental platform.
The hearing at the Sun Valley Opera House "bordered on chaos," according to Norton, but it became the focal point for the real beginning of the Idaho gubernatorial race between Andrus and Samuelson. "The battle lines were thus sharply drawn; perhaps no other political race in the nation was so clearly defined along environmental lines," Norton wrote. "As important as the hearing was for the public to express its approval of the Park-NRA proposal, the real consensus would emerge at the ballot box in November."
On November 3, 1970, Andrus garnered 52 percent of the vote and earned his first of four terms as governor. "There's a reason Cecil Andrus came out against this mine, and that's that he deduced it would be a smart political move, and it was," said Ford. "Andrus' election didn't stop the mine, but all of a sudden there was a sitting Idaho governor saying no. The one-two punch of stopping the mine and creating the SNRA happened very fast, and I think the governor's race had a lot to do with that."
There was also a sitting Idaho governor who was personal friends with men working to stop the mine. An avid hunter and angler, Andrus went on annual May Day fishing trips to the Owyhee country of southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon with Ernie Day, Bruce Bowler and Ted Trueblood. "Bruce was best with a fly rod, then Ernie, then Trueblood, then myself," Andrus said. "Those three men and myself, we'd go crappie fishing over on the Owyhee, sometimes in the rain, sometimes in the sun, and talk about things that had to be done. Many times the future activities that we took on—Wild and Scenic rivers, the wilderness, the Gospel Hump or whatever—were hatched across a campfire.
"We were men of many different backgrounds. I'm a lumberjack and a political accident. But our common thread was we were very concerned about the world in which we lived, and we wanted portions used for economic development so we could make a living, but we also wanted to preserve some of those places for everybody to enjoy."
The plan to protect the mountains of central Idaho was part of more than one late-night strategy session beneath the star-draped sky in the Owyhee country, but political reality didn't mesh with conservationists' vision for a national park. The amount of private land in the Sawtooth Valley and fears among hunters and anglers about national park designation combined to prompt Andrus to work with Sen. Church to strike a compromise. With critical last-minute lobbying by Preservation Council members Russ Brown and Jerry Jayne to strengthen it, a bill to create the Sawtooth National Recreation Area was passed by Congress on August 22, 1972. Though it was a partial defeat for the Preservation Council, which had pushed for a national park, the legislation specifically called for protection of key Idaho values and withdrew the designated land from mineral entry. In the words of the adopted law, the SNRA was created to "assure the preservation and protection of the natural, scenic, historic, pastoral, and fish and wildlife values and to provide for the enhancement of the recreation values associated therewith."
"It's amazing what you can do when it doesn't matter who gets the credit," Andrus said. "Nobody was grandstanding then. Nobody should be grandstanding now."
The Sawtooth National Recreation Area today is widely considered the Gem State's crown jewel. It is a unique composite of more than 40 peaks over 10,000 feet in elevation, picturesque valleys, high alpine lakes, forests and free-flowing rivers. It is home to 327 fish and mammal species, including reintroduced gray wolves, endangered salmon, mountain goats, lynx, mountain lions and wolverines. The spectacular serrated crests of the Sawtooth Mountains, along with the White Cloud and Boulder ranges, tower over the area's interior, and support a vast watershed of lakes and streams that feed the Boise, Payette and Salmon rivers.
But as was true with its formation, the SNRA continues to be a lightning rod for high-profile environmental battles. Because of its multiple-use paradigm, conflicts abound among varying recreation users, among ranchers whose livestock have been killed by wolves, and among those seeking to develop private land. The Forest Service, along with private partners like the Sawtooth Society, an advocacy group founded by Sen. Church's widow, Bethine, continue to buy conservation easements to protect private land on the valley floor from dense development.
But core questions remain: What will the SNRA look like in another 20 or 40 years? What will it look like on its hundredth anniversary? "Will the Forest Service have the guts to protect it?" Ford asked. "Will there be salmon in 20 years? Will there be an effort to expand it? Will there be a White Clouds wilderness?"
While people like Ford continue to pressure managers of downstream dams that kill migrating salmon, others push for permanent wilderness protection for the SNRA's original battleground. Since 1999, Congressman Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican, has been working to designate more than 300,000 acres of the White Clouds as wilderness. "Wilderness would be the right solution for that country," said Russ Brown, an Idaho Falls resident and one of the founding members of the now defunct Preservation Council.
Andrus, too, said there's work to do. "What we need to do is include the Boulder-White Clouds as a wilderness segment on the east side [of the SNRA], and we will have done the people of Idaho a great service," he said. "If it's not resolved now it will continue to be adversely impacted by other uses that destroy the environmental qualities that contribute to a wilderness area."
Preservationist sentiment isn't universally embraced. The rub between traditional economic developments like mining and timber harvest and the new recreation- and preservation-based economy continues. Idaho Rep. Lenore Barrett is from Custer County, a rural Idaho jurisdiction where 95 percent of the land is in federal ownership—including parts within the SNRA. Land protection, she said, doesn't sit well with many of her constituents. "Grazing allotments have been cut to extinction. Permits are denied. Punishment is punitive," she said during February 1998 testimony to Congress. "Multiple use, the flagship of the environmental armada, is lost at sea, and the environmentalists crewing the ship are the only ones assigned a lifeboat. … The SNRA management pretends not to know that earth's biosphere is a self-correcting organism capable of dealing with man's intrusion. And man is entitled."
Barrett's rhetoric, though strong, goes straight to an underlying truth. Because the SNRA was set aside to showcase "natural, scenic, historic, pastoral, and fish and wildlife" values, many users have had to sacrifice for the collective gain of protecting such a prized natural resource. Mining has been all but eliminated, ranchers' grazing allotments curtailed, rafting seasons abridged to protect spawning salmon and camping heavily regulated.
Meanwhile, most of the 1.5 million people who visit the SNRA each year take solace in the natural and spiritual well that was protected 40 years ago this summer. "Those mountains stand outside of time as we know it," said Ed Cannady, the SNRA's backcountry recreation manager who has what he calls "an intense 40-year relationship" with the mountains of the recreation area. "They are seemingly unchanging, and it's good to have those constants in your life. It's pretty amazing to me since the early 1970s how constant my affection for this place has been. The mountains themselves, the Salmon River and the creatures that inhabit that place—I feel so much kinship. The salmon that are born there swim 900 miles to the ocean and then go to so much effort to swim back to the same place. It's easy to forget just how magnificent those fish really are."
Cannady said that, out of his passion for the wilds of central Idaho, a sense of obligation has grown. Any relationship must be reciprocal, he said. "We take from the land incessantly, but we rarely give back. We are obligated to give back."
The passion and integrity exhibited by all the men and women who have labored to protect the SNRA makes them worthy of the status of icons in Idaho's history. The SNRA belongs to all United States citizens today, but it is the legacy of the men and women who fought to defend it.
For those who visit or care for the SNRA now—people like Cannady and Ford, whose lives are woven into the very fabric of the place—there's little question. They stand on the shoulders of giants.