An Idaho visionary peddles his grand dream. Is anyone buying?
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Dispatches, June 1998
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
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
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
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
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
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,”
Illustration by Chris Sharp