September 2, 2008 News of Spatial Interest Vol. 1, No. 13

 The U.S. Congress took a chance in 1972 and established a land use experiment  in the form of the  Sawtooth National Recreation Area Act (Public Law 92-400).  The SNRA was established to assure "the preservation and protection of the natural, scenic, historic, pastoral and fish and wildlife values" of the landscapes held within the core of central Idaho.  Among the treasures within the SNRA are Redfish Lake and the headwaters of the Salmon River - both symbols of Salmon recovery.  The SNRA policy not only underscored the need to protect and conserve fisheries, but also directed Forest Service preservation objectives to sites that typify the economic and social history of the American West.


In contrast to a National Park, the SNRA includes some 20,000 acres of private lands.   Working ranches comprise much of the area, and are an integral part of the economic and social history.  To retain the pastoral landscape, the policy experiment combined land use standards with financial incentives.   In 1973, the Secretary of Agriculture published a land use classification in the Federal Register that established a framework for land use standards.  Private land regulations were adopted to guide current uses and future development on five categories of private land:  designated community, residential, commercial, agriculture, and mineral.  Financial incentives to private landowners complemented the federal land use regulations.  A total of 91 scenic easements protect more than 16,000 acres of private land.  The Forest Service  negotiated voluntary agreements with landowners, with compensation totaling  $44 million.    The financial incentives targeted agricultural and residential categories identified in the land classification map. 


Control of all factors in the experiment, however,  is not feasible.  During the  thrity-six years subsequent  to SNRA establishment, the dynamics of land economics, state policy, and forest ecology have required ongoing administration and adjustment.   Increasing demand for recreation property on the edge of the Sawtooth Range has driven building site prices to values as high as $500,000 for an acre or less.  High land values cause private landowners to recalibrate objectives.  Public landowners are another player in the market that may not always share the SNRA objectives.  The State of Idaho, an owner of four parcels along the Sawtooth Scenic Byway, manages for highest return to the state trust funds, an objective which at times compromises the integrity of the SNRA.  In addition to  these economic wild cards, the  natural disturbance to forests by insects, windstorms, and fire raise resource management questions for the recreation area.  These topics are further described in text and photos, as follows.

Stanley's Last Harrah?

Stanley Museum and Historic Ranger DistrictThe historic town of Stanley is a community surrounded by the SNRA.  Land values have attracted the attention of real estate developers.   Residents, both full and part-time, anticipate that a primary private landowner may gamble with Stanley's future and the conservation intent of the SNRA legislation.  The  William F. Harrah Trust has owned about 25% of Stanley, and managed the commercial hub: a motel, gas station, restaurant, and grocery.  The real estate, named the Stanharrah Properties, also contains employee housing and much of the undeveloped land within  the town's boundary.  The Harrah heirs have reached the inheritance age specified by the Trust, and  Sotheby's listed the Stanharrah Properties (54 acres and commercial structures)  for $14.5 million. 


The uncertainty of the Stanharrah Property future direction causes community anxiety.    The high recreation residential land values may drive a new landowner to convert existing commercial properties to recreation residences.  If the development were to follow the pattern of other western recreation towns, fractional ownership of higher density townhouses or large vacation homes could displace the business core of the community.  Losing the commercial hub would impact employment and reduce local sales tax revenue, let alone alter the character of Stanley.  The Stanley City Council sought help from the Idaho Rural Partnership to review and update the  land use ordinances, and the work is in process. 


The Stanley slideshow records portions of the  existing commercial property owned by Stanharrah Corporation, the company's adjacent vacant land, and the recent housing development by a neighboring landowner in Valley Creek.   The   housing development, with private roads leading to view lots, reflects the market demand for recreation retreats in the Stanley Basin.  Not all development  in the area has conforms to  the federal standards for new structures.  A photo from the Casino Creek subdivision provides an example of a development that did not receive approval for each and every home, some of which have not complied with the  standards - another indicator of the demand for land in the region and the need for continued vigilance. 

Trading for Sense of Place

Neighboring public landowners in the SNRA manage for specific public objectives.  For example, the state of Idaho owns  four parcels in the Sawtooth Scenic Byway Corridor.   The future management of these parcels will follow a different treatment than either the land in National Forest  or the private land with scenic easements.  The Idaho Department of Transportation holds mineral leases on three of the four parcels.  Development and extraction of the mineral resource would not be consistent with the SNRA objectives.


A land exchange between the Forest Service and the Idaho Department of Lands (IDL) offers a potential alternative.  The Forest Service owns land adjacent to the IDL land leased by Tamarack Resort for the downhill ski area.  The resort would like to expand, benefiting their real estate at the base of the future expansion area.  IDL supports the exchange because they would receive and increase in annual lease fees.  Tamarack's current credit crisis will need to be resolved prior to completing the exchange, but the prospect would result in conveyance of the four parcels along the Scenic Byway from state to federal ownership.    Other IDL parcels will also be part of the total exchange package.  The pictures below are taken near three of the IDL Scenic Byway parcels. 

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Managing the Forest 

Beetle outbreaks in the lodgepole pine forests of the SNRA contributed to an increase in forest mortality.  The Valley Road Fire of 2005 grabbed public attention when the fireline made a run towards homes in the Fisher Creek Subdivision, an area previously not considered a high forest fire risk.  A road entrance sign near the subdivision warns travelers of the hazard associated with the residual trees left standing from the fires.  The beetles have also killed trees in the Redfish Lake Campground, creating the need for a timber sale that removed the trees and reduced the safety risk to campers.  In July 2008, a microburst weather system funneled cold air from a dissipating thunder storm into the Redfish Lake campground, causing blowdown of remaining live trees and further compounding cleanup work.  


Due to the beetle kill, some residential structures are losing their visual screen .  More critical, however, is the  management concern for the increasing fuel loads in the region.   The 40,000 acre Valley Road fire demonstrated what can occur, and is likely to reoccur in the SNRA.  Management options include harvest near structures, and prescribed burns in selected locations distant from private property.


The photo atlas identifies example locations of the beetle impact and includes pictures of  one timber sale site.  The sites are shown with greater detail in the slideshow, including the Fisher Creek homes that were threatened by the 2005 fire.

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Is Your Vision 2020?

Planning - Sawtooth SocietyThe Sawtooth Policy, established by Congress in 1972, was on the edge of land use innovation then, and remains so today.    The public investment has sustained the landscapes that typify "the economic and social history of the American West."   Changing social, economic, and ecologic conditions require continued administration.  In other words, the management of the experiment never ends.  The communities in the SNRA acknowledged the dynamic nature of this unique endeavor with their 2006 publication of the Sawtooth Vision 2020 .    Although operating with a unique combination of federal policy  and public investment in conservation that will not be common with other communities, there is still much to be learned from the SNRA.  The strategic document conveys a complete story that articulates desired conditions, issues or obstacles to be overcome, and a suite of implementation tools and tasks to work towards the goals. 


Returning to a question posed earlier regarding Stanley: in 2008, Is this Stanley's Last Harrah?  Don't bet on it.  This is a small community with a commitment as tall as the Sawtooth  Range.


A Sawtooth Vision 2008: A Closing Slideshow
A vision of the present inspires a vision for 2020.  The photos in the closing slideshow present a north to south sample of the pastoral landscapes protected along the Sawtooth Scenic byway.