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The Scotchman Peaks have become an ideological Rorschach for Bonner County

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CALEB WALSH ILLUSTRATION
  • Caleb Walsh illustration

My wife is on the short list of pregnant women to summit the 7,009-foot-tall Scotchman Peak. She was three or so months along with our son when we went up the mountain in October 2011, part of a small group including members of the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. It was perfect, cool weather for the ascent, which features a punishing 20 percent grade for the first half-mile and an average 1,000 feet of elevation gain per mile thereafter.

That bun-in-the-oven she lugged up Scotchman turned 6 at the end of April and the peaks are headed to the ballot in Bonner County on May 15, when voters will be asked whether they think the 13,960-acre area should be designated wilderness.

The trek toward wilderness designation has been in the works for more than a decade and the upcoming vote is "advisory." Still, Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch, who sponsored the proposal in Congress, told residents in an April 11 op-ed in the Sandpoint Reader that he will "follow the decision made by you, the people of Bonner County." That makes the outcome potentially more important than its advisory status lets on.

The vote is also more politically important than its subject might suggest. Much is at stake in the May primaries. What does a wilderness designation on the Idaho-Montana border amount to? Plenty when you consider Scotchman Peaks has become a kind of Rorschach test for residents in one of the most conservative regions of the one of the most conservative states in the country. As essayist Joseph Epstein wrote of the '60s, "Tell me what you think of that period and I shall tell you what your politics are." The same could be said of the Scotchman Peaks.

Peruse the comment threads on any of the several Sandpoint community Facebook pages and you'll find the rhetoric against the Scotchman wilderness proposal comes angry and often. It's also stunning in its predictability. Long story short: The feds, aided by a shady cabal of Soros-funded lobbyists in Boise and D.C., are coming to steal our land. Some variants include shades of the old John Birch Society hobbyhorse that the United Nations is somehow behind it, too.

That the U.S. Forest Service already manages the Scotchman Peaks area as a "recommended" wilderness — and has done so since 1987 — doesn't seem to matter to those folks, which isn't surprising, because their opposition has little to do with the wilderness designation itself.

For many, opposing the proposal is a stand against government as a concept; part of the flight from public enterprise in general that helped motivate waves of migrants to North Idaho from Barry Goldwater Country, California, through the 1980s and '90s. First, they fled the cities for the suburbs, then they fled the suburbs for the forests of the Northwest. Now they're trying to flee from everything including school bonds, building permits, sports field renovations — whatever smacks of public ownership, public responsibility or public stewardship.

To be sure, anti-government attitudes have run through North Idaho for generations, but the hyper-virulent separatism that animates so many in Bonner County today is a relatively recent political shift that has replaced common sense with ideological gamesmanship. For evidence, look no further than the Confederate-flag waving, Sharia-law-fearing demagogues who keep getting sent to the Idaho Capitol from the bowels of the imaginary Redoubt.

People of good faith can disagree about any policy decision, but arguments about government "land grabs" and conspiratorial interest groups don't wash with the Scotchmans. They only illustrate how unproductive — and backward-looking — the politics of North Idaho have become.

I, for one, look forward to showing my son what he missed the first time we hiked Scotchman. ♦

Zach Hagadone is a former co-publisher/owner of the Sandpoint Reader, former editor of Boise Weekly and current grad student at Washington State University.


The original print version of this article was headlined "A Mountain of Politics"

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