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Wilderness Area Accused Of Inhibiting Idaho Town's Economy


Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law, putting 109 million acres of land under federal protection. For hikers, campers and rafters, the wilderness is their playground - far from roads, cars and commercial enterprise. But as Samantha Wright from Boise State Public Radio reports, for some struggling rural towns, those off-limit landscapes represent untapped resources.

SAMANTHA WRIGHT, BYLINE: Elissa Benedek is about to head out for her morning ride from the Mystic Saddle Ranch in central Idaho.

ELISSA BENEDEK: I usually start out with an hour ride to sort of get my sea legs and then go on a longer ride, and it's great.

WRIGHT: Every summer, Benedek and her husband travel from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to vacation in Stanley, Idaho - the doorway to the Sawtooth Wilderness area. Wilderness means roads, logging and motorized vehicles are not allowed, and the landscape is left mostly untouched.

BENEDEK: It means fresh air. It means being able to see the stars at night. It means just sort of relaxing and taking things at your own pace and enjoying yourself.

WRIGHT: Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964. The goal was to preserve and protect lands in their natural condition. The tiny town of Stanley is surrounded by such land, both the Sawtooth Wilderness area and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness are part of the nearby landscape. Deb Bitton and her husband own Mystic Saddle Ranch, and the wilderness is their livelihood. Her 65 horses take riders deep into Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, traveling to places few people ever see.

DEB BITTON: When you get in there, there's a certain amount of grandeur and a certain amount of just awe that you don't get any other way. You know, it really is hard to describe the magnificence of the backcountry.

WRIGHT: The wilderness is beautiful, but the land is not earning it's keep, says Custer County, Idaho, commissioner Doyle Lamb.

COMMISSIONER DOYLE LAMB: We can't do any logging. We can't do any mining. It's hard on our economy. It really is. Wilderness is hard on our economy.

WRIGHT: Lamb lives an hour away from Stanley. His county is huge - almost 5,000 square miles. But 97 percent of that is federal land, including wilderness. None of that land can be taxed, and Lamb says, that means the county is losing potential revenue. Almost 19 percent of people here live below the poverty level. Meanwhile, it's the county that pays to maintain the roads that lead to protected areas. And Lamb says, it's the county that has to respond and foot the bill when someone gets hurt in the backcountry.

LAMB: Because we're strictly volunteer, and we have no paid EMS or search and rescue, so when they call us out, it's hard on the county.

WRIGHT: Lamb says, most people who use the wilderness are dependent on guides and packers to get around. He says, only the wealthy can afford to venture into what he calls a rich man's playground. But back in Stanley, the town's mayor, Herbert Mumford, says, it's mostly mom-and-pop businesses that make up the backbone of the local economy. And he believes they're not doing it just for the paycheck.

MAYOR HERBERT MUMFORD: It hasn't made us rich, but it certainly enriches our lives in ways that transcend money.

WRIGHT: Mumford knows his town is missing out on jobs and taxes. But he says, the people in Stanley have found a balance - both living and working in the wilderness areas that surround them. For NPR News, I'm Samantha Wright in Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.