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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

News

Congressman Mike Simpson on Tuesday released a map of proposed wilderness boundaries for the White Cloud and Boulder mountains north of Ketchum. The green shaded areas, bisected by motorized corridors, constitute the proposed wilderness areas.

Boulder-White Cloud plan scrutinized

Stakeholders cautiously optimistic on Simpsonís wilderness, recreation plan


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

Idaho Second District Congressman Mike Simpsonís effort to designate wilderness in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains received a lukewarm reception this week from outspoken residents of Central Idaho.

To the green groups, Simpsonís Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Proposal looks like a motorized recreation package with wilderness zones thrown in to make it more palatable.

To the motorized groups, the proposal looks like a wilderness bill sprinkled with a few permanent motorcycle and mountain biking trails to try to stave off criticism.

But itís a lot more complicated than that. Simpsonís 11-page "framework," released on Friday, June 18, includes federal land trades to Custer County and the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. It includes implementation of three separate wilderness areas, congressional funding for trail development and a voluntary grazing allotment buyout program. It also establishes permanent motorized recreation opportunities for motorcycles, ATVs and snowmobiles.

It closes some trails to motorized uses by including them in the proposed wilderness areas.

"During the past year, we have met with various groups that would be impacted by possible legislation, including Custer Countyís past and present commissioners, ranchers, snowmobilers, off-road-vehicle users, outfitters, conservationists and others," Simpson said. "This framework represents our best efforts at finding a positive, reasonable outcome for the management of the Boulder-White Clouds that benefits all users."

But in trying to please everyone, Simpson might alienate everyone, skeptics said this week.

"It seems to be slanted pretty hard toward the motorized users. Itís pretty much crafted to try to please everybody, and, probably, it wonít please anybody," said Scott Stouder, western field director for Trout Unlimited. "It could be a lot better. There are some good things about it, but basically, itís real shy on roadless acreage."

Simpson agreed that the proposal wonít make everyone happy.

"There is going to be some part of this that everyone likes. Thereís going to be something everybody dislikes. Hence the nature of a compromise," he said. "Everybodyís going to have to swallow in some areas, for sure."

Members of various groups involved in the process said they are cautiously optimistic that something good will come out of the congressmanís efforts. Simpson first announced his intention to work on a wilderness bill for the mountain ranges in 1999, though momentum did not pick up until roughly a year ago.

"Thereís things we like, and there are things weíre not so thrilled about," said Bill Dart, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a Pocatello-based motorized advocacy group. "I will give Congressman Simpson credit for doing a better job than anyone Iíve seen with a wilderness bill."

Perhaps an indication of the long road to resolution in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, some members of various stakeholder groups have said the status quo would be better than Simpsonís plan.

"Whatís there would be preferable to this proposal," Dart said.

Some of Dartís conservation-oriented counterparts agree.

"Itís certainly not a wilderness bill. Heís not calling it that anyway. Itís a motorized, multiple use bill, more than anything," said Kaz Thea, a fisheries biologist and regional coordinator for the NREPA Network, a conservation group dedicated to the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which would designate wilderness throughout the Northern Rockies with a single act of congress.

"Iíd like to see the bar raised and not lowered," Thea said. "Every time we lower the bar, itís more difficult to get the real wilderness that the Wilderness Act was written for."

Singer Carol King, a 13-year proponent of NREPA and a part-time resident of the Salmon River canyon near Clayton, said there is no reason to support a marginal wilderness bill like Simpsonís when something like NREPA is picking up momentum.

"I am not happy with the framework," she said. "I donít think itís a good bill at all. First of all, it makes huge, irrevocable concessions, particularly to the motorized industry.

"I have had discussions with people who love wilderness who think that Simpsonís bill is a way to get some wilderness, and thatís why theyíre supporting it. I want to say to those people that once they give away that land, itís gone. People who think they can go back and get the land later are wrong. It never happens."

Thea, King and other conservationists are critical of Simpsonís proposal to give U.S. Forest Service-owned land to Custer County as part of an economic development package for the beleaguered rural county.

"This is really a bad idea, in my opinion," said Jon Marvel, executive director of Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project. "The Sawtooth National Recreation Area was created to prevent subdivision in 1972, and that remains a very good reason for the SNRAís continuing existence. This would totally undermine that."

Some, however, said Simpson is not proposing to give enough land to Custer County.

"Originally, he was talking about 16,000 acres. I wanted more than that. Now itís down to 1,000 acres," said Custer County Commissioner and Mackay resident Lin Hintze. "But overall, I think the Simpson thing is a good deal. I really do. If the dollar signs are right for Custer County, so that we can have some sort of payment to help the budget out in the coming years, it might not be too bad."

But if federal land is to be doled out, Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael said she wants a piece of the pie. Michael said she is negotiating with federal land managers to see if Blaine County might be able to receive some federal land to help accommodate its affordable housing needs.

"I understand Custer Countyís economic development needs, but Blaine County has affordable housing needs," she said.

Nonetheless, Michael said Simpsonís plan might be a fair concession for wilderness advocates, though it appears a little small and fragmented.

"In the political realities of getting a wilderness bill through Congress, this sort of a compromise may be the only type of wilderness we have in the future," she said. "The question is: Is some wilderness better than none at all."

The Idaho Conservation League, the key conservation organization pushing for wilderness in the two Central Idaho mountain ranges, said it is reserving judgement and wants to know what its members and the public at large think.

"Itís the first time weíve seen this whole package," said Katheryn Goldman, an Idaho Conservation League conservation assistant. "Simpson is to be congratulated for getting this framework out on the table so everyone can have a serious discussion on the Boulder-White Clouds and the future of wilderness there."

Goldman said, however, that her group was surprised at some parts of the proposal.

"We knew there was going to be something for everybody, but we didnít know where," she said. "So I guess the where was a little bit of a surprise."

Among the most controversial aspects of the proposal for Boulder White Clouds Council Executive Director Lynne Stone was that a peninsula of road-free land between Pole Creek and Fourth of July Creek would not be given wilderness designation. In fact, Simpson proposes to install a new trail across the area and open a long-closed trail to motorized use.

"That kind of came like a bolt of lightning from what was already a pretty dark cloud," Stone said. "We donít know the impacts to mountain goats, lynx or other species that are back there. That really needs to be scrutinized and fixed.

"If they open up that (Champion Creek) loop, I would expect that the motorized use in the Sawtooth Valley would increase 100 fold."

Though she observed several positive aspects of the proposal, Stone was disappointed overall.

"Itís a rocks and ice wilderness proposal," she said.


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