Scotchman Peaks draws closer to wilderness reality

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Hiking the Little Spar Lake trail in summer. Among the Friends of Scotchman Peaks’ robust education program is a series of outdoor courses aim to introduce a new generation to the notion that wilderness is a birthright, part of our natural history and collective heritage. (Courtesy photo)

SANDPOINT — Good things take time and really good things can take more time than expected. That’s the case with Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, a local group that celebrates its 11th anniversary on Friday.

Formed in January 2005, the organization came together to achieve congressional wilderness designation for the 88,000 acres of roadless area that straddles the Idaho/Montana border. Sitting like a capstone atop that wild stretch of country is namesake Scotchman Peak — at 7,009 feet, it is the highest point in Bonner County and stands as a craggy sentinel over Lake Pend Oreille and the Cabinet Mountains.

The hike from the trailhead to the top of Scotchman has the reputation of being a keister-kicking trek, gaining 3,700 feet of elevation in four miles. Nearly as steep and almost as arduous has been the Friends’ long push for wilderness protection.

“We’re 11 years into a five-year project,” said Sandy Compton, program coordinator, noting that the founding members at the first meeting believed the job would take far less time than it has. It’s notable that those same people have stayed on board, keeping the faith as new energy and support coalesced around the cause.

We’ve steadily increased our support in Idaho, Montana and across the nation,” said Compton, pointing out that Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness topped the 6,000-member mark last month. In fact, the group picked up more than 1,000 new members in 2015 alone.

“We’re on an acceleration curve,” the program coordinator said. 

One reason the group has garnered such enthusiastic backing is the nature of a “friends” organization. Members join because they are united in being “for” something, as opposed to the currently in-vogue political trend of being against, well — everything. The positive framework, coupled with the raw beauty of the area involved, likely played a part in the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness getting more public letters of support than any other piece of land in the western United States. 

The building tide has resulted in an improbable coalition. For instance, the Friends have managed to strike up a conversation between ranchers and river people, backpackers and off-road vehicle users alike. At the same proverbial table have been what Compton called “surprise allies” such as the Bonner County Commission, regional chambers of commerce and big names in the resource industry that include Idaho Forest Group and Hecla Mining Co.

“We have some very interesting partners in this endeavor,” he said. “We’re all working together to come to, if not consensus, at least a deal that works.

“Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness is kind of the poster child for how to do wilderness designation in our day and age,” he added. “But these have been hard-won things — it’s taken a change of perspective on all of our parts.”

Building partnership out of so many seemingly disparate views has attracted the attention of lawmakers, according to Compton. After 11 years of working toward the prize, Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness now anticipates that U.S. Sen. Jim Risch will introduce a bill to designate the approximately 30,000 acres on the Idaho side of the border as protected wilderness area.

“If and when Mr. Risch introduces a bill, it will be about the Idaho side of the border,” said Compton. “We’re still working on the Montana side.”

Momentum appears to be with the Friends as they take their message across the state line. Compton already travels to Libby, Mont., three times a month and makes one monthly trip to Thompson Falls. The organization is placing interns in both Sanders and Lincoln counties to build an on-the-ground presence.

“The idea in western Montana is for us to be part of the community,” said Compton, noting that previous attempts at gaining wilderness status there have been a tough slog at both the state and federal levels. “It’s our job to change the conversation.

“When you sit down and talk to somebody about the things they think are important, you find that 95 percent of them are held by almost everyone — safety; food for their kids; a good place to live,” he continued. “Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness has always been about establishing that commonality. Once you do that, things start working.”

With nearly two-thirds of the proposed wilderness lying on the Montana side, there is plenty at stake. Add to that the multiple layers of government and the physical considerations involved and it becomes obvious this could still be a long haul.

“The political geography of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness is interesting in and of itself,” said Compton. “There are two states, three counties, two national forests, three ranger districts, two time zones and two major river drainages.

“But the only one of those things that is real is the river drainages,” he added. “The rest of it is just lines we have drawn as humans.”

To bridge the gap and blur the lines, the Friends have mounted a robust education program with a cross-border appeal. Started three years ago, the outdoor education courses aim to introduce a new generation to the notion that wilderness is a birthright, part of our natural history and collective heritage.

“One of the biggest challenges to wild country in our time is getting kids outside and invested in what they find there,” Compton said. “Once that happens, they want to go back out again.”

This winter, Bonner County high school students will be joined by kids from schools in Troy, Libby, Noxon and Thompson Falls for riparian studies and an outdoor classroom experience called “Winter Tracks,” where students travel from station to station to learn “what life in the woods is like in the wintertime,” Compton explained. 

“It was successful last year and I think it will be even more successful this year, as far as the number of kids involved,” he said.

When the snow melts, Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness hosts summer hike programs for various age groups, one of which caters to youngsters from lower-income families who many times get their first, true outdoor experience.

“It’s amazing to watch, because it’s life-changing — it’s transformative for some of these kids,” Compton said. 

Looking ahead, the Friends see their role as one of providing stewardship and protection for Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. Still working toward a successful wilderness designation, the group plans to enlist its members in stewardship projects once that bar is cleared.

“What we found was stewardship is the most sincere form of advocacy,” the program coordinator said. “If someone is into helping take care of a place, they also want to help protect it.”

History could be on the Friends’ side, as could the geography of the rugged terrain surrounding Scotchman Peak. When the 1964 Wilderness Act mandated a survey of land that might fit the designation, this section landed on that list. A little more than a decade later, it was singled out as an exemplary wilderness candidate, both for its natural bounty and its remoteness. In other words, the thing that could push this project forward might be based, not so much on what is there, but what is not.

“No roads, no improvements, no mining claims — no nothing,” Compton said. “Nothing except wild country.”

The Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness anniversary party will be held on Friday, Jan. 15, from 6-9:30 p.m. in the Panida Little Theater, located at 304 N. First Ave., in Sandpoint.

The celebration will include presentations by the StoryTelling Company, featuring true and not-so-true tales of the west, music from some unusual suspects and a presentation from FSPW executive director Phil Hough on the art and science of long-distance hiking. The event also will include snacks, a no-host bar, a selection of wild silent auction items and a door prize drawing at intermission.

Admission is $10 in advance, $12 at the door and the public is welcome to attend. Buy advance tickets online at bit.ly/11YearsWithFSPW or write to info@scotchmanpeaks.org.

For more information about Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, its history, educational and recreational programs and stewardship opportunities, go online to www.scotchmanpeaks.org.

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