An Idaho visionary peddles his grand dream. Is anyone buying?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, June 1998

Welcome to Nowhere!
An Idaho visionary peddles his grand dream. Is anyone buying?
By Florence Williams

Many people who stand atop Idaho's Kellogg Peak see pretty much the same thing: a vast swatch of overharvested forests punctuated by abandoned mine shafts, heaps of toxic tailings, and a few straggling bears. But when Tom Magnuson gazes upon this landscape, he beholds something entirely different — an outdoor Romper Room in which such seemingly incompatible user-groups as backpackers, birders, and off-road-vehicle enthusiasts harmoniously cavort with nature. "This," declares the PR maven, with a breathless flourish worthy of Mr. Roarke ushering a visitor onto the dock at Fantasy Island, "is Silver Country!"

Silver what? Welcome to one of the most audacious, grandiose, and conceptually bizarre marketing schemes ever to careen across the stage of outdoor recreation. In the little town of Wallace, Idaho, Magnuson is attempting to package the surrounding 50,000 square miles of public land from Spokane to Missoula — an area the size of Greece — as "the most exciting adventure travel destination in the world." Never mind that this imaginary enclosure encompasses lands managed by several independent government agencies and lassos together such wildly unrelated features as the Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars, the Long Tom Snowmobile Trail, and Glacier National Park. To Magnuson, it's all part of the same gigantic playpen. "We're thinking big," he gushes. "Our goal was to create an authentic eco-Disney."

He could hardly have picked a more unlikely setting. Before its rebirth as the hub of Silver Country, Wallace was merely a busted casualty of a century of hard-rock mining; by the late eighties, even the town's infamous red-light district — arguably the only functional component of the local economy — had been shut down. Meanwhile Magnuson, the affable 41-year-old scion of a local mining dynasty, was in Los Angeles dividing his time between freelance rock drumming and studying for his MBA. He returned home in 1990 and, after five years of thinking things over, addressed Wallace's problem one evening by pulling out some government maps and seizing a felt-tip pen. Voil€ — Silver Country was born.

And to a certain extent, the ensuing blizzard of advertisements and mass mailings of promotional materials is paying dividends. The campaign now includes "corporate relationships" with Best Western, Isuzu, and Coca-Cola ("official soft drink of Silver Country") and has received attention from newspapers like the New York Times. Thanks to the coverage, and to a recent "open streets" ordinance inviting snowmobilers and ATVers to tear through quaint downtown Wallace, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, tourism has jumped 20 percent in the last year. Magnuson hopes a similar stampede will soon be clattering through the rest of Silver Country. "As our friends at Isuzu say," he explains, "we want to help the public enjoy public lands."

Some of the public, however, wants no part of this offer. "Who does this guy think he is?" demands John Gatchell, director of the Montana Wilderness Association. "If he wants to build Disneyland, let him do it on his own property." Gatchell and other advocates of nonmotorized recreation fear that Magnuson's well-oiled tri-state promotion will sully once pristine forests with the flatulence of two-stroke engines. "Silver Country is a small sign of a bigger trend," says Bethanie Walder, director of Montana's Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads, "to motorize, commercialize, and privatize our public land."

As ominous as all of this sounds, however, Silver Country today seems a long way from becoming the next Moab. Indeed, judging by the soggy torpor of a typically rainy recent weekend, Magnuson's magic kingdom may still reside largely in his own mind. "What the brochures don't tell you is that the weather is often crappy and that few trails are maintained or even marked," confides Mike Domy, who owns a bicycle shop in the neighboring town of Kellogg. "It's awfully hard to imagine a flood of tourists anytime soon."

Illustration by Chris Sharp

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