It has been quite the experience living in Stanley, Idaho this summer. Stanley’s Sawtooth National Park is a beautiful and hidden gem inside the Gem State! The park has three separate entrances. One from Highway 21 and the two other entrances are on Highway 75. When visitors arrive to the park, they are treated with spectacular views of the Sawtooth Range and greeted with the rustic aura of Stanley and the Sawtooth Valley. Idaho is very proud of its one and only national park.
Hang on… the Sawtooths are not a national park. In fact, they have never been a national park. It is actually known as the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). It is not administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior, but by the U.S. Forest Service under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It seems like a national park, doesn’t it? The Sawtooth Valley has all the “ingredients” for a national park. Then why isn’t it on the United States’ list of natural wonders, like Yosemite and Yellowstone?
Since moving up to Stanley this summer, this question and other related questions are frequently on my mind. Local residents and other Idahoans seem mostly happy with the Sawtooths’ current designation. They cite Stanley’s laid back feel and the area’s (relatively) low-use opportunities for recreation. The consensus is that, if it were a park, it would be too crowded and would lose its wilderness appeal. National parks are infamous for large crowds and for a lack of true backcountry recreation.
Now all national parks are different: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park has the largest designated wilderness area in the entire United States. But Alaska is also the exception due to its vastness and isolation from the rest of the country.
I grew up on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Growing up, I did not think about public and private land management. Number one, because I was a kid. But also because the topic did not seem to present itself in conversation. Alaska is so big and unpopulated that there might just be enough room for everyone!
Not so in the continental United States. Private and public lands co-exist for better or for worse. Idaho and the Sawtooth Valley are a great example of this struggle. The establishment of a national park means preservation. Park land is untouched and must stay that way. Ranchers, hunters, and some recreationists want access to the land for its resources. A park shuts off a majority of that access. A national park also brings in hordes of tourists who want to view the specially designated area. This might push out those who call the area ‘home’ as land prices around the park go up.
A national recreation area designation under the U.S. Forest Service is all about conservation. It gives the land many uses and Idahoans love that freedom. The three wilderness areas within the SNRA also delight those Idahoans who want untrammeled lands that go even beyond the national park’s strategies of preservation. Wilderness areas are road free, machinery free, and mostly structure free. Humans are welcome to visit but not welcome to stay.
With all that being said, national parks do bring with them an elevated level of mystique and reverence. Outdoor recreationists look to certain states as destinations specifically for their national parks. Arizona has the Grand Canyon, California has Yosemite, and so on. Idaho is not revered for its outdoor opportunities. It is simply known as the ‘Potato State’. Idaho is mainly famous for its irrigated agriculture.
Since moving here for college, I notice that Idahoans are passionate about their beautiful state and its large forests and wilderness. But many of those same people also seem to resent the fact that Idaho is overlooked and an unknown. There are shirts with phrases like, “Idaho not Ohio” or an Idaho state shape sticker with “Iowa” written inside. People want to be proud of their home. They want to show others WHY they choose Idaho and not California or Oregon.
Idaho’s national misrepresentation is not a blessing or a curse. It’s just an added wrinkle in what makes Idaho so unique.
This discussion of national park versus national recreation area leads me to my main question: What if Stanley, Idaho had a national park known as Sawtooth National Park? How would it affect the area and would it be for better or for worse? A national park might have truly altered the course of Idaho’s environmental history. Think about it! Talk about it! Wonderful discussions can happen at one of the Sawtooths’ beautiful alpine lakes or one of its towering peaks.
-Kenny Werth, Stanley Museum Docent