July 16, 2022
Getting to the heart of what matters in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area
The Sawtooth NRA is not a National Park
Before I moved to Stanley to start working, I did not know the Sawtooth were at the center of a National Recreation Area (NRA). I’d never heard of one before, so I was curious, what is a National Recreation Area? Like a national forest or park, a National Recreation Area is managed by the federal government with the purpose of putting recreation at the forefront. This means focusing on a variety of activities such as backpacking, camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, biking, and various water activities. National Recreation Area can be managed by several different agencies including the National Parks Service, the Forest Service, or Bureau of Land Management. In the case of the Sawtooth NRA, it is managed by the Forest Service.
The designation of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area has been a long and contentious topic. Designated in 1972, the debate of how to protect the Sawtooth Mountains had already been going on for years. Multiple attempts to make it a National Park had been made beginning near the turn of the 20th century. With no national park in Idaho, outside of a small part of Yellowstone, it seemed reasonable to have one for ourselves, and recreation areas were, and are, less well known than national parks.
Why wasn’t it made into a national park? This mostly came down to Idahoans raising their opposition to the idea. Making it a national park would mean banning a lot of activities including fishing and hunting. With the National Recreation Area designation, a wider variety of activities are allowed, letting people use the land in the ways they have historically, with a few exceptions.
In addition to its National Recreation Area designation, the Sawtooth Primitive Area became the Sawtooth Wilderness. This provided opportunity for additional protections including fire restrictions, banning motor vehicles in certain areas, limiting how human can interact with the landscape, and protecting wildlife. To many people at the time the NRA seemed like the best solution to protect the land while still giving them recreation opportunities.
This doesn’t mean the push to make the area a national park died off. There have been multiple proposals put forward to give the land the national park designation since then. Many of the locals I’ve talked to feel strongly about this idea.
The Sawtooths are relatively unknown compared to similar tourist destinations. There’s a good reason for this. Many people when traveling from out of the country look for national parks instead of other recreation areas. This means we usually fly under the radar. This benefits recreation in the area greatly by keeping visitor numbers comparatively low. Less crowds means more space and opportunity for people recreating here.
If you ever go into shops in Stanley you can hear the, “let’s keep the Sawtooths local and less known,” sentiment echoed often. Many shops sell stickers with slogans along the lines of, “go somewhere else,” or “keep Idaho to ourselves”. Is this unreasonable? Personally I don’t believe so, seeing how national parks are treated nowadays. Mass overcrowding has caused rapid degradation of the trails and overall quality of the experience. Hour-long lines outside of parks such as Zion, Yellowstone, and Arches National Park can also cause frustration.
The main drawback of not having the designation of national park is that the Sawtooth NRA gets less funding and resources. The Forest Service is the agency that helps maintain this Area with the help of nonprofits like us, the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Association! This creates a hard choice of where to send already limited resources. With this being the 50th anniversary of the SNRA it is important to take this look back on the purpose and meaning behind the designation. It is also important to take a look at the long struggle of getting the SNRA the National Recreation Area status.
Eddison Black is a naturalist for the Sawtooth Association. He is an Environmental Studies Major with a minor in Recreation Resource Management, at Utah State University. Growing up in Idaho Falls he visited the Sawtooths often. He is excited to be living in the mountains this summer!