People in this central Idaho mountain community feel as if they've been locked in a cage, while their cars have been placed on blocks of red tape.

And folks in the back country - whose streak of independence is about as fierce as a grizzly bear jarred out of his winter slumber - don't take kindly to that."I know the kind of people who live out there, and I've never seen a bad one," U.S. District Judge Harold Ryan said last spring. "But if you treat them poorly, they can turn into wildcats, and rightly so."

The 60 full-time residents of Yellow Pine are ready to turn into wildcats if Ryan doesn't overturn the U.S. Forest Service's latest decision to close the South Fork of the Salmon River road on Jan. 1.

If the decision sticks, it would effectively cut off residents' ability to drive in and out of Yellow Pine for the next two winters.

"We know we have a statutory right to ingress and egress," said Lois VanHoover, long-time Yellow Pine resident. "We know we have a constitutional right to free travel. And it's all being deprived."

"I'm old - I want a way in and out of here," added Harlow Struble, one of many Yellow Pine retirees. "When they close that road, we're all going to move into the (Valley County) Courthouse."

Prior to 1984, Yellow Pine residents either flew or snowmobiled 75 miles to Cascade, the nearest settlement. But since then, roads have been plowed and open. Residents have grown used to driving to Cascade for groceries and medical emergencies.

"We always hear the road was never open before," said Ruby Struble. "But there was a time when the road wasn't open from Boise to Cascade, either. There is such a thing as progress."

Townsfolk are deadlocked in a classic struggle between wilderness and civilization. They revere the remote and reclusive nature of this historic mining and recreation village, and the scenic mountains, clean air, clean water and clean living that go along with it.

But they're not willing to lose the precarious thread that ties them to civilization - the South Fork Road, which winds and bends for 33 miles along what is perhaps the most controversial and environmentally sensitive stream in Idaho.

The journey from Cascade also includes a 25-mile jaunt over Big Creek Summit to reach the South Fork junction, and another 18 miles of dirt road along the South Fork's east branch to Yellow Pine.

By vehicle, the trip takes about 21/2 hours, depending on road conditions.

Three mining companies, Coeur-Thunder Mountain, Pioneer Metals and Hecla, all have summertime gold-mining operations near Yellow Pine. They also have a stake in keeping the South Fork Road open during the winter.

Each has a caretaker watching over the mines during the winter, and researchers working at mine sites. Lack of access will boost transportation costs in and out of Yellow Pine.

Cutting off winter access "works an economic hardship on us, and it works a hardship on the people," said Don Bork, manager of the Coeur-Thunder Mountain mine.

Many residents say they would live elsewhere for the winter if the road is closed.

Veto J. "Sonny" LaSalle, a 25-year career officer for the Forest Service and supervisor of the Payette National Forest, said there are concerns about sediment washing into the South Fork and suffocating eggs in salmon and steelhead spawning beds. That's the primary foundation for this latest decision.

The Columbia River Intertribal Commission and environmental groups have been pressuring the Forest Service to restore the South Fork to its preeminence as a major producer of summer chinook salmon, LaSalle said. Sediment has been identified by the Idaho Fish and Game Department and the Forest Service as the largest obstacle blocking progress toward that goal.

The South Fork also is one of only three rivers in the entire Snake River basin that still produces wild steelhead.

LaSalle concedes he has no hard numbers on how much sediment is washing into the South Fork as a result of snow-plowing, but he believes it carries a substantial risk.

"The question is how much are you willing to gamble," he said. "What if we got a 25-year storm next March - we're about due for one of those - and we get 2-3 inches of rain on a frozen road. That road is 33 miles long. All the water has to run off someplace. And the ditch lines aren't designed to take care of that kind of load.

"You're talking major road washouts and a major amount of sediment going into the stream. Then we'll have another group of people in here - the tribes and the Wilderness Society - saying now everybody pays. We've endangered the fish.

"I'm just not willing to take that gamble."

Residents say they want the fish runs to come back, too, but they fail to see how concerns about snow-plowing could possibly justify closing the road when considering the Forest Service's own contribution to the sediment problem.

Another question remains: How will Yellow Pine residents pay for plowing the road?

Fish and Game previously paid Valley County $20,000 to plow the road from Cascade to Warm Lake, the most expensive portion of the plowing job because of Big Creek summit. But Fish and Game withdrew its contract this year.

Valley County road officials say the South Fork portion of the plowing job costs $5,000 or less, depending on snow depths.

Townsfolk say their tax dollars should amply cover plowing costs.