In this 2013 photo, a couple of backpackers stop to take in the view on their way to Alpine Lake in Redfish Lake Canyon in the Sawtooth National Forest. (Nate Lowe/U.S. Forest Service)
Two recent news reports brought back memories of a time when important figures of both political parties could work together to achieve important public objectives.
In the summer of 1966, Idaho’s two U.S. Sens. Len Jordan (R) and Frank Church (D) were working on the language of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The legislation was intended to protect pristine river stretches from development and degradation, including some on the Salmon and Clearwater rivers.
I was doing my second summer internship in Jordan’s office, mentored by a fine Boise lawyer, Norm Halliday. The original bill called for condemning private property along the course of the rivers, which minority Republican staffers on the Senate Interior Committee opposed. Norm invited me to join him at a minority staff meeting to consider how to break the impasse. Also present were Ed Woozley, Jordan’s natural resources expert who had previously served as director of the BLM from 1953 to 1961, and James Watt, who worked for Sen. Milward Simpson, R-Wyoming. A June 8 news report, announcing Watt’s recent passing, was a reminder of that meeting.
Watt was belligerent in the meeting, spoiling for a fight. He did not offer anything in a positive vein. Nevertheless, there was legitimate concern that ranchers along the rivers could lose the use of some of their land. I suggested they consider using scenic easements, instead of taking the land. I’d just written a paper for one of my law classes about the use of easements to protect scenic values in an urban setting. Nobody else had ever heard about that kind of easement, but they agreed it was the right way to go.
The act, which was signed into law in 1968, described a scenic easement as “the right to control the use of land … for the purpose of protecting the natural qualities” of a designated river area. The idea was to keep the aesthetic values of the easement area basically the same as when the government purchased the easement. If it was a rustic ranch setting, that visual effect would have to be maintained.
From that time forward, scenic easements became a regular feature of wilderness and recreational area legislation, including Church and Jordan’s bill creating the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in 1972. As Jordan’s legislative assistant at that time, I felt I’d had a hand in developing a valuable tool for protecting unique properties.
The other recent news report dealt with litigation to prevent the U.S. Forest Service from using a scenic/conservation easement it purchased in 2005 for $1.8 million on land located in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. The easement land is now owned by David Boren, a resident of Boise. The easement was acquired for use as a non-motorized public trail between the city of Stanley and Redfish Lake. The easement traverses Boren’s property for about 1.5 miles. It will allow the public to enjoy breath-taking views of the Sawtooth Mountains and Stanley Basin while traveling the 4.5 miles between Stanley and the lake.
Boren launched a federal lawsuit against the trail in 2019, throwing a kitchen-sink worth of claims against the Forest Service, all of which were easily disposed of by the federal judge in a well-crafted decision in February of last year. The news report indicates that the Stanley Redfish Trail is scheduled to open this summer, but that Boren’s ill-fated suit is still pending on appeal to the federal circuit court. The appeal is without merit and will likely be dismissed. The legal structure put in place by our two senators held firm against this latest effort to deprive Idahoans of the enjoyment of this scenic treasure.
Thinking back to this simpler time, it was a rare privilege to have a front-row seat to observe public figures with differing political views working in tandem to protect Idaho’s important natural resources from self-interested individuals and developers. This example provides hope that we can get back to those better times. In the meantime, Idahoans must all do their part to ensure protection of these special areas.
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