Behind the Stories

A Sawtooth Celebration: Looking back 40 years

By Bruce Reichert
September 7, 2012

Sawtooth Mountains by Lisa Kidd

Helicopter landing area near ASARCO base camp at Baker LakeEver wonder why that breathtaking front of the Sawtooth Mountains isn’t populated by hundreds of condos and high rises and shops and subdivisions? What kept the Stanley basin from going the way of, say, the Bitterroot valley or Jackson Hole?

The answer may surprise you: Castle Peak in the White Clouds.

Since the 1950’s, Idaho’s U.S. Senator, Frank Church had been trying to preserve the Sawtooth front. But his solution -- a national park -- was going nowhere. Then, in the 1960’s, a mining company began doing exploratory work in the nearby White Cloud Mountains. The company, American Smelting & Refining Co (ASARCO), believed there was molybdenum at the base of Castle Peak, worth millions of dollars. The mining company planned an open pit mine and wanted permission from the Forest Service to punch a road into the heart of the White Clouds.


Core sample drill rig at Little Boulder Chain Lake #1The governor at the time, Don Samuelson, didn’t see anything wrong with the idea. The 350 jobs it would provide Custer County would be a boon to the area. Besides, hardly anyone ever visited the White Clouds.

In 1969, a young College of Idaho staff member, Jan Boles, backpacked into the area with a colleague. After seeing helicopters and a caterpillar and men with chainsaws and hearing dynamite explosions, he wrote, “we began to feel less like backpackers approaching what has been called Idaho’s most magnificent mountain, and more like Tolkien’s hobbits sneaking toward the dark citadels of Mordor.” These photos of his are evidence that the mining company had already begun exploratory work near Castle Peak.

A young Democrat, Cecil Andrus, decided to make the mining of Castle Peak a campaign issue in the 1970 governor's race. “What they wanted to do was a crime,” Andrus told us recently, “and I said, No, we're not going to let that happen. And we didn’t.” Andrus won the governorship that year. Most political observers credit his stand on Castle Peak for the victory.

There's nothing like a crisis to goad folks into action. And not long afterwards, Church and Andrus and the rest of the Idaho delegation settled on a novel idea… to protect the Sawtooths and the White Clouds and the Boulder Mountains with something called a national recreation area, managed not by the National Park Service, but by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area, the SNRA, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year; and we’ve decided to honor the occasion with an hour-long Outdoor Idaho program, to air December 2nd.

We’ll let some of the key players tell the story of the history of the Sawtooth NRA. We’ll look at the area through the eyes of outfitters and photographers and tourists and others. And we’ll explore what was gained, and what may have been lost, and what is yet to be considered. I hope you can join us. Perhaps you’ll come away loving the Sawtooths – and the White Clouds – even more than you do now.


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