Finding the Song in Our Hearts
When not hiking the wilderness himself, Phil Hough and the Friends of Scotchman Peak seek to preserve a small portion of our most important area resource: our land.
Hoisting a glass of merlot (or a mug of Alpha Dog) at an event to draw attention to one of his projects, or hoisting a dead, skinned beaver onto his back to carry it into the highest reaches of our local mountains in the hopes of tempting a wolverine into a photo shoot, Phil Hough is a man of many talents. The Executive Director of the Friends of Scotchman Peaks, a group working to gain federal wilderness designation for 88,000 acres of our back country, “Nowhere Man” and his wife, “Walking Carrot” (visit their website at walkingcarrot.com to learn the stories behind their trail names) are fixtures of the local nature scene. In between mountain hikes, he took some time to talk about his work, and why it’s important to all of us.
Q. Can you give us some of your background? When did you come here, and what did you do before you ended up in North Idaho?
A. In 2002, after 20 years of working in resort or upscale city hotels in Colorado, Arizona and California, Deb and I wanted to shift gears, so we moved to Sandpoint to enjoy life at a bit slower pace in a more natural setting. We were drawn to the area by the recreation in different settings and seasons as we enjoy paddling, hiking, backpacking, snowshoeing and cross country skiing. The small town charms of Sandpoint, which also offers a vibrant selection of art, music and restaurants, were other reasons for moving here. We also wanted a good “home base” for our hiking trips, a house where we could store things and that would be attractive to family and friends so that they would enjoy spending time as house-sitters.
Q. What did you do here prior to your work with the Friends of Scotchman Peaks?
A. When we moved to Sandpoint we had a couple of trips that we were planning on doing, so while Deb tele-commuted, my main focus was to figure out the logistics for our trips. In 2002 we hiked across England on the 195-mile Coast to Coast trail. In 2003 we spent a couple months paddling and hiking in Baja and in 2004 we hiked the 2,700-mile length of the Pacific Crest Trail. In between, I did a little bit of consulting work for the catering department at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane.
I was part of the group that formed the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness in January 2005. As an all-volunteer organization for the first several years, I also spent some time working a variety of part time jobs to help make ends meet. They included some technical editing for manuals produced by Specialty Technical Consultants, leading back country trips for the Galena Ridge School, doing some outreach work for the Model Forest Policy Program and working with Doug Scott from the Campaign for Americas Wilderness to help plan and coordinate logistics of his speaking engagements around the country. Eventually the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness volunteer position grew into a part time, paid position.
I’ve also been an active volunteer. I’m a founding board member and vice president of the Idaho Trails Association, as well as a past president of the American Long Distance Hikers West Assoc., a past president of the Kinnikinnick Chapter of the Idaho Native Plant Society, and the former chair of the Bonner County Aquatic Invasive Species Task Force.
Q. Tell us about the Friends... what is it, what do you do for it, and why does should anyone support it?
A. A group of concerned citizens from our area formed the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness in January 2005. Spanning the Idaho/Montana border, the Scotchman Peaks are one of the last, and largest, wild areas in our region. The Friends conducts education, outreach and stewardship activities to preserve the rugged, scenic and biologically divers 88,000 Scotchman Peaks Roadless area. We believe the Scotchman Peaks deserves congressional designation as Wilderness for the benefit and enjoyment of current and future generations.
We now have a little over 4,200 Friends who support our goals and activities; over 80 percent of our supporters live within just a couple hours’ drive of the Scotchmans.
As the Board Chair and Executive Director, I coordinate the activities of a small part time staff and a large number of volunteers. We are active in engaging the community through presentations, public events, organized hikes, naturalist led classes, trail maintenance, wildlife monitoring and other stewardship activities. We rely upon and draw strong support from our volunteers and the community for these programs.
Every person has a unique reason why they connect on an individual level to wilderness. We see a common thread among our supporters in their desire to preserve some of our area’s unique and treasured natural landscape. Longtime residents, newcomers and visitors alike feel a connection to the land; this connection to, and love for, the land is a common value in our community shared by a large majority of people.
Q. You and your wife have hiking’s Triple Crown under your belt (or in your backpack). Can you tell us a little bit about that—what it was like and why you did it?
A. The Triple Crown of long distance hiking consists of the three most recognizable long distance trails in the U.S.: the Appalachian Trail (2,100 miles), the Pacific Crest Trail (2,700 miles) and the Continental Divide Trail (3,000 miles). About 140 people are known to have completed it, including three or four other couples. Hiking these three trails includes a wide range of physical, mental and emotional experiences from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. It’s extremely challenging and rewarding. We’ve also paddled the 2,000 mile length of the Yukon River across the vast wilderness of Alaska, with many similar experiences.
These trips are really more about the journey than the destination. Successful hikers have to be a little bit crazy I suppose, certainly somewhat obsessive and compulsive, and by the time they are done have seen the landscape of our country in personal way, have tested the limits of their bodies, psyches, and imagination. In the beginning I wanted to see more of our country’s remote mountains, our wilderness. In the end I wanted to find out more about myself. I’m now addicted to long distance hiking and paddling. Maybe it’s a bit of “escapism” from the more mundane life we lead; maybe it’s the chance to put everything in perspective—that we as individuals are such a small part of this huge landscape, of the natural world; maybe it’s the thrill of knowing, or finding out, that “if I can dream it, I can do it” and then bringing that attitude back to the rest of my community. I still don’t really know what drives me but with each trip I get a bit closer to figuring it out.
Q. In 2005, author Richard Louv introduced the world to the concept of “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Do you agree that we need ‘nature’ in our lives?
A. Richard Louv is the latest in a long line of authors, thinkers, and philosophers who see the need for people to connect to nature, to see the positive impact it has on our lives. I was fortunate when growing up to have the opportunity to escape the suburbs we lived in and go backpacking and canoeing with my dad. Those trips had a profound impact on me. Not only are we connected as individuals to nature, our nation’s identity has been defined by our landscape, our Western heritage by the frontier.
Long before Richard Louv, Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
As I’ve seen, and lived, in cities, suburbs, rural areas and for months on end in the wilderness, the further away from nature one is, the more one finds “lives of quiet desperation.” Simply put, I believe we need nature to find the songs in our own hearts.
For over two decades, I have kept another Thoreau quote handy. It’s the one inscribed on the monument at his cabin site on Walden Pond and it’s motivated me in most all that I do: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Q. What would preserving the Scotchman Peaks area as wilderness mean for our communities?
A. When congress designates the Scotchman Peaks as Wilderness, our communities will benefit from the certainty that this special place will always remain the same way it is now. In a world of constant change, keeping some special places the same are important. We would know that we would be able to continue to find the Scotchman Peaks as the same wild and natural place it is now, where we can keep going to find that song in our heart.
Q. The Friends gathered a lot of support rather quickly. How did you do that?
A. Individuals connect to the idea of wilderness for different reasons, so in some ways it truly has been one person at a time, one conversation at a time, one public presentation at a time. We have been effective at this because there is a strongly shared common value in our area—our connection to the land.
In the four million acres of land managed by the Kootenai and Idaho Panhandle National forests there is a lot of room to support the multiple needs that our public lands address. As a group we believe that there is room for sustainable timber, mining and grazing, for responsible and managed recreation in all its forms, motorized and non-motorized. We also believe that there is room for wilderness, and that the Scotchman Peaks represents one of the very best examples of where wilderness designation would be the most beneficial use for the land. Many people agree with both this approach, and this assessment.
As of August, we have a bit over 4,200 supporters and this number continues to grow because in an era defined by conflict, we are identifying something where there is some general consensus.
Q. I understand you’ve gone to Washington D.C. as a lobbyist. What does that actually mean?
A. Our representatives in Congress are faced with thousands upon thousands of legislative proposals each year covering hundreds of different facets of public policy. Just think about all the areas that our laws cover. Each congressman sits on a small handful of committees dealing with a few issues. They simply cannot be experts on every topic. Lobbyists tend to get a bad rap, and often times deservedly so when they are using money or power to influence legislation. At the same time, there are many full time lobbyists who do not have money or power to peddle. They provide information and communications to congressmen and their staff.
In the case of land management issues, grassroots lobbyists, like us, provide that special local knowledge of a specific place important to developing a complete understanding of an issue, like Wilderness. Our trips to D.C. have been an opportunity to provide information on the Scotchman Peaks to our representatives, and their staff, who otherwise would not be as well acquainted with the area.
One of the remarkable things I have observed on several trips to D.C. is how open our representatives are to meeting with all of their constituents. Observing from the waiting area in their offices, I’ve seen a wide spectrum of individuals take time to visit their representative’s office to talk about whatever issue is near and dear to their heart. This is representative democracy at its finest.
Q. Where can people go to learn more about what you’re doing?
A. Our hiking map and newsletter, published six times per year, are distributed for free at about 80 businesses in our region. People can sign up for email or postal delivery of our newsletter by using the subscribe button on our website, located at ScotchmanPeaks.org. There’s no cost and we never share that information. Our website also features lot information about the area and activities, including upcoming hikes and trail projects. Many of our supporters connect to us and to each other on Facebook (Facebook.com/ScotchmanPeaks) for current information and to share experiences and photos.
Q. Any final words?
A. Our Rare Forest Carnivore (Wolverine) study will enter its third season this winter. In partnership with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game we have been setting and checking camera stations to capture images and DNA samples from Wolverine, Lynx, Fisher, Marten, Ermine and others. This cutting edge Citizens’ Science project has produced some valuable data and involved a lot of volunteers in some great wintertime fun! People interested in participating or supporting this project should check out the “Wolverine” tab on our website.