Wednesday, October 5, 2005

House Resources chairman weighs Idaho wilderness bill

Conservative congressman is first hurdle to CIEDRA passage

Express Staff Writer

The political maneuverings have begun over the future of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, and the powerful chairman of the U.S. House Resources Committee appears amenable to a far-reaching bill that would legislate solutions to an array of Central Idaho's outstanding land-use and economic conundrums.

"It is possible" that Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson's wilderness and economic development bill, called the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, is the right bill at the right time, said U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., in an interview Saturday in Austin, Texas.

As chairman of the Resources Committee, where the bill will begin its legislative journey later this month, Pombo has the power to kill the legislative review before it ever begins. The chairman said he would prefer to see a more comprehensive bill encompassing far more of Idaho's unresolved land-use debates, but added that CIEDRA is the kind of consent-building legislation that could work.

"That kind of consensus is what's going to have to happen. It has to be that kind of proposal," Pombo said.

Simpson has been working to build consensus in Central Idaho for more than six years—about two years in earnest—and his bill could receive a hearing in Pombo's committee before the end of October.

The bill is intended to designate 300,011 acres of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains as wilderness, as well as to legislate solutions to an array of Central Idaho land-use, economic and social conundrums. Should the legislation pass both branches of Congress and receive a signature from President Bush, rural Idaho could receive as much as $20.45 million in appropriations. The bill also would designate motorized recreation corridors and handicapped access trails, repeal federal reserved water rights and allocate 2,000 to 3,000 acres of federal lands to Custer and Blaine counties and to the cities of Stanley, Challis and Mackay.

Pombo, who was among four panelists who appeared during a forum at the Society of Environmental Journalists' annual conference, commented about Simpson's bill both during the panel discussion and in an interview afterward. Although he reviewed Simpson's bill favorably, he stressed that he is also anxious to see proposals that would solve outstanding debates on a larger scale.

He'd like to see a "much larger plan," perhaps something that could be coined the "Idaho Lands Act," which might combine wilderness designation efforts in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains and Owyhee Canyon country, as well as resolve outstanding public land conflicts in other arenas.

"This is probably one of the great debates we have not had in Congress, and that is when you talk about specific wilderness areas," he said. "I've got probably four of five different wilderness propositions for (the Northwest) in my committee right now."

The "only way" is to lump them together and "set guidelines" for the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to follow that will help prevent future lawsuits, he said.

"The only way it's gonna' happen is if someone stands up and says it (management through litigation) is not working. We need another way to manage our public lands right now."

Despite Pombo's comments alluding to a more comprehensive Idaho wilderness package, Simpson's bill is expected to proceed independently this month. In an interview Monday, Lindsay Slater, Simpson's chief of staff, said the Boulder-White Clouds proposal has made more political headway than a separate proposal for the Owyhee Canyonlands.

"In my discussions with Chairman Pombo's staff, we fully expect that the Boulders will remain a single bill, and we still expect that we will have a hearing at the end of October," Slater said.

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapos's bill proposing wilderness in the Owyhee Canyonlands in southwest Idaho has not yet been introduced. The bill was developed and delivered to Crapo roughly a year ago by a consortium of stakeholders, including conservationists, ranchers and local public officials.

The proposal would designate 510,000 acres of wilderness.

Pombo is settling into his seventh term as a Republican congressman and his second as chairman of the House Resources Committee. When he was appointed to chair the committee in January 2003, he was 41, making him the youngest committee chairman in the House's history. Today, at 44, he retains that distinction.

He is considered by many to be a private land rights zealot, and his efforts to reform the Endangered Species Act have been widely publicized, most recently last week when the House passed his Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act of 2005. As the boss of the Resources Committee, he has a tight grip on public lands and environmental laws, and he has hinted at sweeping reforms of many U.S. environmental regulations.

In the wilderness arena, he was widely credited in 2004 with killing efforts to designate 106,000 acres of wilderness in Washington in the Wild Sky Wilderness Act. But on Saturday morning, he countered such reports.

"That bill was ready for mark-up," he said. "The fact of the matter was that we were ready to pass that bill on."

He said in-fighting among Washington senators, combined with disagreement over the number of acres the bill included, prompted him to pull it.

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