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John Freemuth Interview

John FreemuthJohn Freemuth is a political scientist at Boise State University. He has written several books on public lands issues. Bruce Reichert conducted this interview in the summer of 2012.

Didn't the National Park Service come up with a plan for managing the Sawtooth area?
It was requested by a member of Congress, if I have my history right. And what they proposed looks sort of like maybe two fried eggs, in a way. You had two core wilderness areas — the Sawtooths and the White Clouds — surrounding the valley floor and elsewhere by a national recreation area. And that proposal obviously created some debate and concern. It was sort of reflective of where the Park Service was beginning to go in that era.

So both the Park Service and the Forest Service were vying for this land?
The Forest Service and the Park Service have a great historical competitive relationship. The Sawtooths, to the Forest Service, is a crown jewel, much like we talk about national park crown jewels. Remember, the first proposal for a national park in the Sawtooths was around 1911. One of the reasons the Forest Service developed primitive areas is to fend off park proposals.

"So, what is a national recreation area? There is no template. There is sort of, I think, political solutions to difficult issues."Now that doesn't diminish Bob Marshal and all the philosophers of wilderness, right? But they picked areas because they were losing land to the Park Service. What do you think the national parks would come from after the creation of the Forest Service? Before then, there were parks and no Forest Service. They were the first agency, but there were parks before there were forests. They don't want to lose the Sawtooths to the Park Service. That's why you get the recreation area concept that comes later, but back then it was primitive areas.

Hunting seemed to swing the debate to the Forest Service side.
Oh, no question. Jim McClure told me this; Cecil Andrus has told me this; and Idaho is a hunting state. The Park Service Organic Act will say there is no hunting in units of the park system, unless Congress decides to authorize it. So a national park here in Idaho, to overcome that, would have had to have congressional authorization for hunting, because otherwise the Park Service would not allow it.

Forty years ago, how unusual was this concept of a national recreation area, managed by the Forest Service?
The national recreation concept sort of originates ironically with Harold Ickes as a way to come up with a less national park level quality area that the Park Service could still manage to - in his words - outflank the Forest Service. But they are sort of the garbage can of public land policy. You have the Sawtooths and Hells Canyon, indistinguishable from the quality resources of national parks. Then you have the place I was a ranger - Glenn Canyon national recreation area. It's essentially wilderness - I mean, it is stunning red rock country, but in the middle of it is a lake. Then you have Golden Gate and Gateway national recreation areas in San Francisco and New York City. So, what is a national recreation area? There is no template. There is sort of, I think, political solutions to difficult issues. You clearly don't want to make them national parks for certain reasons but you want to distinguish them in some way.

Can you make the case that the Sawtooths could be better handled by the Park Service?
You can make a case, just like you can make the opposite case. What you would probably get with a national park is more resource protection. You would certainly get much more interpretation. And I know a lot of people lament that the Forest Service has not done with interpretation what the Park Service could do, because it is one of the things the Park Service emphasizes, besides resource protection.

Sawtooth Range [Credit: Tim Tower]Would you get more development? I'm not so sure anymore that you would look at something like Grand Teton as the reference point. You might want to look at Great Basin. If you look at Great Basin, there is no development at Great Basin. That's probably where the Park Service has gone now. But would it bring in more people? Unquestionably, because you put the label national park, and people would come. And some people would think that's too many people.

One of the arguments is the money issue. Might there be more money for things if it were a national park?
The Forest Service is a diverse agency, and it probably has people who are, I would say, closer to a Park Service philosophy in terms of resource protection, and less interested in multiple use, but that's probably still a big minority of that agency.

This is a national recreation area. Now, it's subsumed in the Sawtooth National Forest. The National Park Service does nothing like that, alright? And these two in Idaho are pretty unique — the Hells Canyon and the Sawtooth — in terms of clearly being world class areas. So you'll get the criticism, it's a crown jewel. Distinguish it. Have the Sawtooth Recreation Area supervisor, equivalent to a forest supervisor. Why can't you do that? Maybe internally they feel, well, it will get special attention. Well, okay, the agency already rhetorically gives it special attention, right? And it is odd, when you think about it, you've got these areas that Congress has already said are different from the national forest. They have their own enabling legislation, and they've got different sets of purposes. It is kind of confusing to people, and I think it is a cultural issue within the Forest Service.

Retired ranger Tom Kovalicky argues that they need to treat the Sawtooth NRA differently from other forest districts.
I think Tom Kovalicky is correct, and Tom was here at the beginning, and Tom, like all of us, has his own perspectives and biases. The manager of the Sawtooth NRA still has to report to a supervisor. I think they just have trouble in their own culture figuring out how to do that. And Tom was sort of out there as a Forest Service person. I think Tom was a little greener than some of them and stood for a different vision of how to treat certain areas.

SawtoothValley [Credit: Lisa Kidd]Interestingly, there is a growing 'turn Hells Canyon into a park' movement again. In Oregon there is some frustration again with whatever the Forest Service is doing in Hells Canyon. Well, guys, that one has come back more than once, just like this has. I'm not saying it is justified, but there is something going on; and I'll tell ya, Rule Number One still is: if you want to get more attention from the Forest Service for this area, threaten them with a national park, and they will do something about it!

I'd submit to you that the competition between the Park Service and the Forest Service gave us this NRA, alright? And I think the people who sponsored that ought to be proud of at least what their vision was - Cecil Andrus, Frank Church, Jim McClure.

And while we're talking about McClure, there are a number of people who think there's a mountain here named Mount Heyburn that really ought to be named Mount McClure. After all, Senator Heyburn was not a fan of the public lands. He hated the Forest Service. Jim McClure — some environmentalists may not like me to say this — Jim McClure had a lot to do with this Sawtooth NRA; and Jim has passed away now. What a nice honor to have a mountain named after a guy who helped create the place and fought for it. Mount McClure. Wonder if it will happen someday?