A Mixed Blessing

Eric Melson celebrates the fruits of his labor after a long climb on the Little Casino trail. The route, done in combination with Big Casino, is one of both extreme physical challenge and awe-inspiring beauty.

A Mixed Blessing Wilderness, Monuments and Mountain Bikes in the Boulder-White Clouds

When it comes to Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains, biking tends to involve hiking.

Back in 2014, we were midway through the Gem State’s renowned Castle Divide route, which begins near the town of Stanley and traverses through the heart of the Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges. We weren’t riding. Rather, we were pushing our bikes toward the ridgeline far above.

In the White Clouds, however, the way down is always worth the climb. As we dropped through the 5,000-foot descent, we passed through every variety of Idaho mountain biking, from high-alpine singletrack to dark trees, chundery stream crossings, open meadows and dusty sagebrush. We finished at the headwaters of the East Fork of the Salmon River, prime habitat for endangered bull trout and a great cool-off spot in the midsummer heat. 

Our group was a collection of friends and coworkers, brought together by our collective effort to permanently protect the Boulder-White Clouds. The area had been on the verge of wilderness designation for a decade—a mixed blessing for us, as it would also permanently close the trails to mountain bikers. Along with the Wood River Bicycle Association, IMBA and state and national wilderness advocates, we were here to champion an alternate option: a National Monument designation, which would keep the trail both open to bikes and safe from development.

Summer in the Sawtooths often means hot temperatures and extra-dry trail conditions.

That day we passed Boy Scouts, decked out in improvised trash-bag ponchos, and a chain of horses, whose riders tipped their hats as we continued by. Conflicts were rare in the White Clouds at the time, due in part to the physical and logistical challenges of completing routes like Castle Divide on mountain bikes. It was a combination of user groups that worked, and a National Monument designation would have expanded such opportunities. Bikers could access the area’s high peaks, similar to those enjoyed by hikers and horses in the nearby Sawtooth and Frank Church wilderness areas.

Serena Bishop-Gordon floats through the tall pines on the lower reaches of the Big Casino trail. The upper section has enough rocky and technical components to challenge just about anyone, along with a few alpine lakes to provide a welcome reprieve on a hot summer day.

In the end, our efforts to maintain mountain bike access failed. One year after our trip, the Boulder-White Clouds were designated as wilderness, making that day’s ride illegal. With the decision, the Boulder-White Clouds became an example of the potential consequences of “saving” our lands. Whether those consequences are negative or positive depends on where you stand or, rather, what you ride.

The story of how wilderness won in the Boulder-White Clouds is not a new one. People have been working to protect the White Clouds since the ’70s, when successful opposition to a molybdenum mine on Castle Peak helped determine the outcome of the 1970 gubernatorial election. Three-plus decades later, Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson doggedly sought wilderness designation for the Boulder-White Clouds, introducing a bill in Congress every year between 2004 and 2013. By law, wilderness areas are closed to “mechanized travel,” which, according to land management agencies—such as the United States Forest Service, who oversees the White Clouds—includes mountain bikes.

After seeking wilderness designation for a decade without success, supporters switched tactics in 2014, aiming for a National Monument designation. It was a promising approach for politicians and conservationists alike. While wilderness requires congressional approval, National Monuments only need presidential approval. And for bikers, it sounded even better. National Monuments have the potential to allow bikes, because each monument has a custom management plan. 

For the first time in the history of the Boulder-White Clouds debate, wilderness supporters and mountain bikers were on the same side. Both groups had finally agreed on a way to permanently protect the region and keep Castle Divide, Ants Basin and other great trails open to mountain bikers: by pushing President Barack Obama toward a National Monument designation. 

Originally known as the Sawtooth Forest Reserve, the 2,110,408-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area has a history dating back to 1905, when President Theodore Roosevelt officially set it aside for preservatiaon. Serena Bishop-Gordon and Aaron Clark pedal below the rocky towers of Warm Springs Creek and through more than a century of conservation history.

As efforts progressed, it looked like the dream would become reality for conservationists. For mountain bikers, however, this was just the beginning. 

Land usage is inextricably tied to politics, and political divisions during President Obama’s second term were unusually fierce. When Congressman Simpson proposed his wilderness bill in 2015, the priority for many Republicans was to keep the matter off the President’s desk. With President  Obama winding up to approve National Monument status, Republicans took the other option: they acted on Simpson’s wilderness bill, which blew through Congress and was signed into law in just two weeks.

As the saying goes, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Mountain bikers had fought for decades to get a seat among the public lands policymakers, but with Congress’ passage of the wilderness bill, they were pushed out in less than a month. 

Mountain bikers suddenly found themselves forced to oppose conservation advocates with whom they’d been working just a short time before, once again separated from other supporters of big, wild, protected places.

The Super Group and their post-ride shenanigans, which includes BB-gun target practice and rehydrating (with beer). Representing Oregon, Idaho, Vermont and Colorado, this motley crew had their first annual ride in 2014. Despite the loss of the Boulder-White Clouds, they’ve gathered every year since to celebrate the great riding that’s still open to mountain bikes.

One year after the wilderness designation, our crew returned to the Boulder-White Clouds to ride what we still could. Even without Castle Divide, there are still amazing trails in the area, and we headed for the classic Little Casino to Big Casino loop, with its ridge-top views and rowdy descent. We slept in a teepee, ate breakfast at the Stanley Bakery, and shot beer cans with a BB gun. 

Still, we did not contour the lower flanks of Castle Peak, or pass volcanic goblins of rock standing on the impossibly steep, white talus slopes of Castle, the tallest peak in the range. We never reached Windy Saddle, the high point of the now-lost traverse, where we had once celebrated with salty chocolates and a small flask of whiskey, our legs and minds thoroughly enjoying the combination. Because of the wilderness bill, we could only reminisce. 

Over the campfire, we discussed the implications of the wilderness bill, beyond bikes. While protecting the land is the goal, we must first and foremost appreciate what we have because one day it might be gone. As Edward Abbey said, “It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here.”

The self-proclaimed part-time crusader and halfhearted fanatic was one of history’s staunchest conservationists, but also wise enough to not let the battle overshadow the present. So while the fight continues, I suggest you go and ride the Fisher-Williams loop out of Stanley. Before you start the descent, pedal through the vast meadow to the “No Bikes” sign at the edge of the wilderness. From there, remember—or imagine, if you can—the adventure that once lay beyond that wooden marker.