HOPE — About 13,900 acres of the Scotchman Peaks were first recommended for wilderness designation by the United States Forest Service in the 1970s, and the question remains — should the area be designated as wilderness or not?
Only Congress can make that decision, said Darren Parker from Sen. James Risch's office.
Parker, along with a few more staff members from Risch's office and representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, hosted an open house Tuesday regarding the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness Act. About 300 people attended the event at Hope Elementary School.
"The reason we are here tonight is to ask constituents for their input, whether they support or oppose that idea," Parker said. "... In the legislative process, right now, we are in the stage where we want public input."
As the event got underway, Parker said he'd already heard comments, concerns and questions from both proponents and opponents to wilderness designation, and some who just wanted to learn more about the designation and the legislative process.
Parker said because the area has been recommended wilderness for so long, not much would change from the current restrictions if it were designated as wilderness. But some community members are not so sure.
Pat Gunter of Sagle and Durell Harbison of Ponderay, for example, feel the Scotchman Peaks should be left as they are now to preserve the "history and tradition" of the area.
"It's been protected since the early '70s at least," Gunter said. "There's no logging, no mining, no road building, no houses, so it's protected ... just leave it alone."
The two have lived in the area their entire lives and enjoy the recreation — hunting, in particular — that the Scotchmans are so well known for.
They said bicycle riding should be allowed on the trails, and while there has been restrictions of motorized vehicles, one of the concerns for Durell and Harbison, as hunters, is the use of game carts. Although these carts are not motorized, they are considered mechanized, as are bicycles, and would be prohibited under the designation.
Hunting would still be allowed on the Scotchmans, as one of the display boards pointed out. Idaho Fish and Game would retain jurisdiction over the rules and licensing of hunting and fishing in the wilderness area.
Another concern by the two was the no-chainsaws rule that would go into effect with a wilderness designation.
Shoshana Cooper, public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service office in Coeur d'Alene, said chainsaws are not currently allowed in recommended wilderness, except by the Forest Service to clear trails.
"If it is signed into law, we can't even use chainsaws," she said. "So we would use crosscut saws or other tools."
But Gunter and Harbison were skeptical that anyone would take the time to use hand tools to keep the trails open.
Cooper said another concern she heard was whether the Forest Service can fight fires in a designated wilderness. She said they can respond to wildfires, as well as planned ignitions if needed.
"If there is a wildfire, it's a case-by-case instance," Cooper said. "... There is a lot of different things to consider. One of the number one things the Forest Service is going to look at — is it worth the risk of putting people in there? The Scotchman Peak area is rugged and steep."
Sometimes landscape will contain a fire, she said, in which case it would likely be left alone rather than risking the lives of firefighters and helicopter pilots, unless it threatens homes and communities. A fire behavior analyst would look at the situation to determine the best course of action.
Proponents of the wilderness designation, like Steve Lockwood of Sandpoint, feel it is a "first-rate proposal."
"One of the things I work on locally is economic development and there is no better asset for an area than quality of life," Lockwood said. "That's why people want to be here, that's why we can retain businesses and attract them ... wilderness areas really add to that. I also support it because I want my grandkids and their kids to have places like the ones I grew up with that made a big difference to me early in life."
Rep. Sage Dixon was in attendance at the event, and while he said he is "on the fence" regarding the wilderness designation, he was there simply to learn more about it.
"I'm still open about it," Dixon said. "It's something that has not been at the forefront of my radar, but it is very important to everyone out here, so I am trying to learn."
Since Risch introduced the wilderness act last year, Parker said the main concern he has heard from community members is they want more information and want to be a part of the process.
"Tonight, this is the process," Parker said. "And the process will continue. This is not the only opportunity."
He said more open houses will be held in different locations throughout the area. In a statement released Wednesday, Risch said details regarding a future public meeting are being finalized.
"Thank you to those who engaged my staff in a conversation about a potential Scotchman Peaks wilderness designation," said Risch in the statement. "There is a lot of interest in this topic, and as I have said since day one, I will not move forward until I hear directly from as many Idahoans as possible. Our office continues to welcome constituent feedback through our regional offices, our website, or at a future open house."
Mary Malone can be reached by email at mmalone@bonnercountydailybee and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.