Friday, May 20, 2005

Simpson re-submits BWC wilderness bill

Bill proposes three separate wilderness areas

Express Staff Writer

Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson delivered on a six-year-old promise Thursday and asked his congressional colleagues to consider designating 300,011 acres of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains as wilderness.

Six years ago this weekend, the Republican announced he would attempt to piece together a wilderness bill to protect the Boulder and White Cloud mountains and to help several Central Idaho communities pull through their economic doldrums.

On Sunday, Simpson will return to the shores of Redfish Lake, where he made the announcement six years ago, to discuss the bill at the Idaho Conservation League's annual Wild Idaho! Conference.

During the last three years, Simpson has tried to meet with as many Boulder and White Cloud mountains stakeholders as he could.

"In my discussions I found there were some important issues that had to be addressed if this bill were to move forward," he said. "These include providing economic stability for Custer County, securing roads and trails for today's motorized recreation users and future generations of motorized users, providing economic viability to ranching families, and creating a substantive wilderness. The legislation I have introduced represents my best effort at resolving these issues in a manner where no one is unfairly impacted."

Simpson's Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act has changed from when it was submitted last year in the waning hours of the 108th Congress. Notably, a plan to transfer 960 acres of Challis National Forest land to Custer County was scrapped. Also, no new roads or trails would be built, and one off-road-vehicle play park would be built instead of four.

More specifically, the bill proposes three separate wilderness areas, $20.45 million in appropriations and 2,000 to 3,000 acres in land gifts to Custer and Blaine counties and to the cities of Stanley, Challis and Mackay.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg.

The bill would withdraw 131,616 acres from consideration for wilderness designation. It would create a 960-acre motorized recreation park near Boise. It would establish a program by which cattle ranchers in the East Fork of the Salmon River valley could retire their grazing allotments in exchange for payments from the government.

Simpson said the bill is "as close to a compromise as you can get."

"This is probably not a bill anybody would sit down and write themselves," he said during a Thursday afternoon conference call with reporters. "There are parts of this bill that if I was sitting down and writing it for me, I would change. That's what a compromise is all about."

He said the bill is balanced on a "knife edge." Partially because of the delicate balance and partially because it is an Idaho solution to an Idaho problem, the congressman will not agree to changes easily.

"Once we get a bill that we think is the compromise we can sell in Idaho, we've always said that once it comes back here (to Washington D.C.), we're not going to allow it to be changed," he said. "They'll lose my support for it if that were the case."

Working on compromise to solve wilderness and public land disputes is the way of the future, Simpson added. The wilderness bills of tomorrow will also legislate solutions to a variety of problems.

"Honestly, I think this is how we're going to do wilderness bills in the future," he said. "We've always had this fight over where you would draw the lines. In this bill, we've expanded that debate into trying to take care of more of the regional problems other than the problems just in the (proposed wilderness)."

The Wilderness Society seems to agree. As one of two conservation groups that have had front-and-center seats to Simpson's negotiations, some of its representatives have said Simpson's method is worth the effort.

"If we just walk away from it, it doesn't do the wilderness protection part of it any good," said Craig Gehrke, The Wilderness Society's Idaho director. "There are other groups that have said this isn't the right way to go, but we're going to respectfully disagree."

Other conservation groups aren't so convinced. Nor are motorized-recreation advocates.

Members of the Sierra Club and a group of Stanley-area residents are voicing strong opposition to proposed land gifts in and around Stanley. Supporters of the Rockies Prosperity Act, which would designate wilderness throughout the Northern Rockies, have said Simpson's bill concedes too much.

Likewise another group of Stanley-area snowmobilers has organized a campaign against the proposal because it includes too much wilderness.

"It's interesting when people ask who supports this because you can't really point to an organization that supports this, but you can point to a lot of people who support it," Simpson said.

The bill will begin its lawmaking journey in the House Resources Committee, chaired by Richard Pombo, R-Calif., who just last year stifled efforts to designate 106,000 acres of wilderness near Seattle, Wash.

Simpson said he obviously will need support from Pombo, as well as from the Idaho congressional delegation. When asked who would carry the bill in the Senate, should it make it that far, Simpson said he has talked with Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Larry Craig, but neither has indicated his support or opposition.

"I could look at any part of this and say it's potentially a bill killer," Simpson said. "I tried to bring the conservation groups together to where they're 51 percent in favor of it. And we tried to bring the other side to where they're 51 percent in favor of it. We're really walking a fine line here."

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