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Boyd Norton Interview

Boyd NortonBoyd Norton was one of the organizers of the Greater Sawtooth Preservation Council, and an early opponent of the proposed open pit mine in the White Clouds. He was also a nuclear scientist working in eastern Idaho. Producer Greg Hahn conducted this interview in the summer of 2012.

What was it about the proposed mine in the White Clouds that galvanized opposition?
Putting an open pit mine into an area is the ultimate desecration of a place. Castle Peak and the White Clouds is so beautiful and pristine it should have been made a wilderness area or a primitive area a long time ago. What got us fired up was the prospect of the complete and utter destruction of this beautiful area by putting an open pit mine in. One of the things that was interesting about this battle — and also the battle we fought in Hells Canyon — is that some of the people who were pushing these projects were really kind of stupid. They made such outrageous statements that we could turn those around in our own defense and point out to people how absurd these things were that they were pushing.

For example, ASARCO officials, when they made the first pronouncements about developing this molybdenum mine at the base of Castle Peak, were talking about the fact that, well, certainly we're going to make a big hole, but we're going to fill it in when we're done; and then we're going to have a beautiful lake there from the tailings pond, and it will be a recreation area for people. I took some photographs of that Henderson Mine up near Leadville, Colorado, and the tailings pond that they had there. That was certainly no recreation lake. It was a pile of sludge and muck and who knows what the mixture was that went into that of heavy metals and all kinds of carcinogens. So we were able to say, do you want this in the White Clouds?

"I think 99.9% of the people who testified there were absolutely against that mine. That had to have shaken the mining community and ASARCO right to their core, seeing that sort of outpouring."Later I went in there on a backpacking trip and took a number of photographs right in the exact spot that they were talking about putting the open pit mine and the tailings pond, and then we juxtaposed those with pictures from the Henderson Mine and said, this is what the White Clouds are going to be like. I think that was a good rallying point for people — even people who weren't necessarily hard core conservationists here in Idaho.

There are a lot of people who live in Idaho who may not be hard core conservationists, but they really appreciate what they have here; and when you have something that is so threatening and damaging as an open pit mine, I think that makes people sit up and take notice. Are we really doing the right thing by developing it? Sure, there will be jobs. Sure, it will bring money into the state; but is it worth it? What about the quality of life that we have here? That's the kind of thing that was a driving force for a lot of us.

Do you think the Sawtooths alone would have taken it to the next level of protection if it hadn't been for the controversy in the White Clouds?
That's a good question. I think the controversy over the White Clouds was a real catalyst for preserving the whole area around here — the Sawtooth range and the Boulder and Pioneers and so on. I think it made people sit up and realize that we've got a real important wilderness resource here.

A full page ad in the Idaho Statesman during the debate over the White Clouds.I think the fight over the White Clouds probably speeded up that process considerably, because when we formed this organization called the Greater Sawtooth Preservation Council, it meant just that — the greater Sawtooth region, which included the White Clouds and the Boulders. It was something that I think sparked that movement to get the whole region preserved, to put it into some kind of a classification.

Initially, we wanted a national park, the reason being it certainly would have make it much more difficult for ASARCO to develop that mine. Whenever you threaten a national park, I mean it's like God, mother and country. A national park is something kind of sacred in the minds of many people. So it really was important, we felt, to push for a national park. Of course, later we got talked out of it. I still think it might have gone through, if we had pushed hard enough. It's not that the current SNRA is bad. I think the level of protection is good that we have right now. We still have to push to get the White Clouds and the Boulder Mountains protected as wilderness areas. I think that is Priority Number One right now.

What about the mining claims currently in the White Clouds?
Cece Andrus pointed out this morning that those are patented mining claims, and under the 1872 Mining Law, whoever owns those patented claims could go ahead and develop it. It doesn't mean they would, because there is a whole process that would have to be done to give them access to those mining claims — unless they wanted to go in and develop the mine and take everything out by helicopter, which obviously is not practical. They would have to have access roads, and that was one of the issues, of course; and the White Cloud battle initially was, would the Forest Service issue a permit for them to build an access road in there?

If a national park were established, it would be much more difficult for them to get access. It wouldn't have necessarily negated their patented mining claim, because under that stupidly antiquated 1872 mining law, anyone can patent a mining claim, and they can mine away whatever is there. Under the rule of law, there is what is called a "Prudent Man" aspect of that law, which says, would a prudent man go in and mine that ore if there were all these obstacles, economic and environmental, against them doing that? Well, they went ahead and filed and eventually they were patented. But they still have to get Forest Service assessment of the Environmental Impact of putting in access roads to the place. So we pushed hard on that to stop it. So there were all these different aspects, and finally ASARCO gave it up.

"I think the controversy over the White Clouds was a real catalyst for preserving the whole area around here — the Sawtooth range and the Boulder and Pioneers. I think it made people sit up and realize that we've got a real important wilderness resource here." The road created the excuse for public hearings. Those big public moments seem to have a lot to do with turning the momentum around.
At that hearing in Sun Valley, all of us were limited to 3 minutes, because there were hundreds of people at that hearing. And then even toward the end, they said you've got one minute; otherwise, we aren't going to finish. And I think 99.9% of the people who testified there were absolutely against that mine. That had to have shaken the mining community and ASARCO right to their core, seeing that sort of outpouring.

I think maybe people didn't understand that there was a growing conservation movement taking place here in Idaho, and some of it began with that McGruder — Carter hearing in 1966 that four of us from Idaho Falls drove over to Boise and testified at. And we discovered there are a bunch of people over here who feel the same way: Mort Brigham from Lewiston, and Ernie Day and Bruce Bowler, Ted Trueblood, and we began to communicate with each other.

When this battle came up over the White Clouds, and we started the Greater Sawtooth Preservation Council, it wasn't just a bunch of us getting together in Idaho Falls and drinking beer and commiserating over the White Clouds. We began to communicate with other people around the state. We published a newsletter. We were communicating among ourselves and with others. I remember there were garden clubs, there were bird watching groups, and we appealed to some of the hunting and fishing groups as well. Even though we didn't see eye to eye sometimes on land preservation issues like national parks — because national parks don't allow hunting — we had the same feeling about the need to preserve these places, and so we were in communication with fishing groups and hunters.

You've got to remember all this was long before the internet, long before email and instant communication and Facebook and everything else. It took weeks, months and years sometimes to rally the troops and get the word out about some of these battles. We started to build some strong coalitions among people and organizations here in the state, so it wasn't a surprise that that many people turned out. We beat the bushes to get them to turn out. That's how we got them there.

What about Ernie Day?
He was an outdoorsman; he was a backpacker, he was a fisherman, he hunted. And if you have to go back and look at the history of the conservation movement here in Idaho, he was probably the pioneer, maybe he and Ted Trueblood and Bruce Bowler, all at the same time. Ernie was a great photographer too, he had that one aerial photograph that he made of Castle Peak. Ernie was multi-talented. He was a good speaker, also. Boy, he could turn heads when he got up to give a statement at a hearing. So he was a very, very powerful conservation force here. I was really sad when I heard that he passed away last year.

Photos of the Henderson Mine in Colorado showed what a Leadville Mine tailings pond looked like. [Credit: Boyd Norton] So, looking back forty years, has the national recreation area idea worked?
It's hard to say. You are kind of second guessing. Yeah, there is some truth in the fact that a national park has a different meaning for people who don't live in the area, people from back east and people from California or the Midwest. A national park is something special in the minds of people, and we've kind of made it that way, haven't we? A national park is kind of a special place. It is more protective than a national forest or a Sawtooth National Recreation Area under the Forest Service. That doesn't mean that the Forest Service can't or won't do a good job of protecting the area, and probably in much the same way that the park would.

There is some merit to the argument that yes, a national park might attract a lot more people. I'm not sure that is entirely true, but it has happened in a lot of places. So yeah, we are attracting a lot of people to them, and the old cliché ‘we're loving them to death,' it's happening unfortunately; but I'm not so sure that it won't eventually happen here, as well.

You know, you can't freeze a place in time if they discover it. It's kind of a sad commentary on our society that we've grown so much as a country in population. We are more mobile than ever; we travel; we have more disposable income. We're more outdoor recreation oriented, more and more and more people are coming to these places. I almost shudder to think if I could strap a pack on my back and head up into the Tetons or maybe up to Alpine Lake or Sawtooth Lake in the wilderness here in the middle of summer, I'd almost bet that there would be a hell of a lot of people there.