Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Simpson submits BWC wilderness bill

Bill would protect 294,100 acres, funnel up to $18.25 million to Central Idaho

Express Staff Writer

Mike Simpson, R-Idaho

Some of the most significant legislation to come out of Central Idaho in decades was submitted to Congress on Friday when Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, dropped his Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act in the laps of his congressional colleagues.

The bill includes a major economic development package for Custer County, Blaine County?s northeastern neighbor, as well as wilderness protection for a significant chunk of the Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges.

The bill would funnel as much as $18.25 million into rural Idaho in the form of grants, a grazing permit buyout program and funds to purchase conservation easements. Another estimated $9 million to $11 million worth of public lands, more than 2,000 acres, could be traded into private hands.

The bill would protect 294,100 acres of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains as wilderness, the most restrictive land management designation in Congress? bag of tricks.

There?s probably something in the bill for most people to like. There?s also probably something in the bill for most people to dislike.

?It?s been an interesting challenge finding a compromise that will promote economic development in Custer County, assist ranchers who have been severely impacted by the environmental lawsuits, protect and enhance historic motorized recreation opportunities and create a wilderness,? Simpson said in a prepared statement.

Simpson first announced he would pursue wilderness and economic development legislation for Central Idaho in May 1999 at a meeting of conservation groups at Redfish Lake Lodge in the shadow of the Sawtooth Wilderness Area.

Since then, and particularly in the past two years, he has worked to build consensus among the various stakeholders in the region.

?After listening to the needs of our traditional user groups that will be impacted?the county, the ranchers and outfitters, the motorized recreation community and the conservationists?I am pleased that we have taken a few discussion concepts, created a framework, held public meetings which resulted in a draft bill, and finally the legislation I have introduced today,? he said Friday. ?Throughout the process, my focus has been on protecting historic uses while creating a win for all users, and I think this comes as close as we can get to doing that.?

Conservationists have sought wilderness protection for the Boulder and White Cloud mountains?the largest unprotected contiguous road-free land mass in the lower 48 states?for more than 20 years. But the bill contains compromises that have concerned the conservation community since Simpson first made them public at the beginning of the summer.

Compromises from the conservation community include federal land grants to Custer and Blaine counties, as well as the city of Stanley. They also include lands and trails that would be set aside for motorized recreation.

The predominant compromise from conservative rural Idahoans includes the designation of any wilderness at all.

?In the long history of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, this is a significant step forward,? said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League. ?We thank Rep. Simpson for his leadership and look forward to continued work to address a few thorny issues in the measure before final passage in the coming Congress.?

But passage?or even consideration?may not be imminent.

Congress recessed on Friday and will probably only reconvene in November to finish a few spending bills. In all likelihood, the bill will be resubmitted when the 109th Congress convenes in January. Additionally, a few crucial details?specific public lands that would be granted to Blaine County, as well as to Custer County near Challis and Clayton?have not yet been added to the bill.

?The congressman has made a commitment to introduce legislation this year, and this is the closest to what he thinks is a win-win for all parties,? said Lindsay Slater, Simpson?s chief of staff.

When it is finally considered, the bill will begin its journey through the lawmaking process in the House Resources Committee, now chaired by Richard Pombo, R-Calif, who on Sept. 22 killed legislation that would have created a 106,000-acre Wild Sky Wilderness Area near Seattle.

But Slater declined to predict how Simpson?s Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act would fare and also said he does not know if President George W. Bush would sign the bill.

On the ground, stakeholders expressed cup-half-full opinions, while adding a few grains of salt.

"Congressman Simpson's legislation presents a very real opportunity, the first in many, many years, to protect the Boulder-White Clouds as wilderness,? said Craig Gherke, Idaho director of The Wilderness Society. ?We look forward to working through the legislative process to address several troublesome issues in the months ahead. While the bill admirably protects key wildlife habitat on the east side, we would like to see further protections for popular recreation sites in the high peaks area to the west.?

Others voiced overall opposition to the measure.

?If there?s one glaring failure of the bill, it?s the failure to deal with wildlife,? said John Osborn, conservation chair for the Northern Rockies chapter of the Sierra Club. ?This is a bill for motorized exploitation of the Boulder-White Clouds. It?s not a bill to protect wildlife. When you open the Boulder White Clouds to motorized recreation, it?s inevitable that you?re going to threaten those wildlife species.?

Slater, who did a lot of the heavy lifting in drafting the bill, makes no bones about the bill?s intent.

?This is an economic development bill,? he said. ?It provides sustainability and development for the future. We?re protecting motorized recreation, ranching and other users to make sure they?re there in the future. We want certainty.?

But the conservation component of the legislation is nothing to scoff at, Slater said.

?At the same time, we?re creating wilderness areas in places we?ve deemed are deserving for future generations,? he added. ?The one thing Mike Simpson always keeps in the back of his mind as he goes through this process is future generations. He?s thinking about those who want to use it and those who want to protect it.?

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