Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Blaine County ponders wilderness bill

Commissioners will announce official position on Simpson's bill Thursday

Express Staff Writer

Conservationists are squabbling with conservationists, Custer County is supporting wilderness, and Blaine County doesn't yet know what it wants.

It may seem like the world's gone mad, but it's a simple reaction to one of the most complex, compromise-ridden wilderness bills to ever go before Congress.

Thursday, exactly a week before Congress hears Rep. Mike Simpson's Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA), the Blaine County Commissioners will announce whether they support or oppose the bill.

"It's important to have the support of all the communities involved," said Lindsay Slater, Simpson's chief of staff. "Having the commissioners' support is a good indicator."

Simpson's bill proposes the designation of 300,011 acres of wilderness in three units in the Boulder-White Clouds, but at a cost to wilderness advocates. In exchange, generally anti-wilderness, pro-public access Custer County will receive federal land for development, motorized corridor's between the wilderness areas, and various appropriations to revive the county's struggling economy. Custer County is poised to receive 2,000 to 3,000 acres of federal land and $5 million in appropriations with passage of the bill.

Meanwhile, typically pro-wilderness, anti-access Blaine County is slated to receive about 440 acres of federal land for public infrastructure projects, including a fire station in Smiley Creek, 40 miles north of Ketchum.

The Blaine County Commissioners will announce their official position on the bill Thursday at 4 p.m. during a public meeting at the old Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey. Blaine County Commissioner Tom Bowman said his decision will be based on "what's best for Blaine County." He added that a public hearing in Hailey last Thursday will weigh heavily on his decision.

That hearing, which drew approximately 50 citizens and lasted close to four hours, showcased old friends who now find themselves on opposite sides of the wilderness debate.

A group calling itself the Committee to Save the Sawtooth National Recreation Area spoke against Simpson's bill, claiming it concedes too much federal land to Custer County for development; doesn't include enough wilderness acreage; leaves sections of the SNRA vulnerable to reduced protection; and paves the way for increased motorized access in the Boulder-White Clouds.

Support for the bill came from the Idaho Conservation League, the Boulder-White Clouds Council, the Wilderness Society and nine of the 17 citizens who spoke at the hearing. Proponents of the bill acknowledged there are aspects that are tough to swallow, but compromise is a necessity.

"I think this is the best chance we'll get and we should go for it." Lynn Stone, executive director of the Boulder-White Clouds Council, told the Blaine County Commissioners at the hearing.

Linn Kincannon, the Idaho Conservation League's central Idaho director, displayed a chart to the commissioners indicating motorized recreational use in Idaho is sky rocketing. In 2004, there were over 91,000 off-highway vehicle registrations issued in Idaho, compared with just 2,700 in 1973.

Under Simpson's bill, no new motorized trails will be built, and a couple will be closed. But Kaz Thea, a member of Save the SNRA, feels CIEDRA, with its concessions to the motorized community, will draw unwanted attention and spark additional motorized use. She noted that 45 percent of the proposed wilderness will be within one mile of a motorized trail.

"What does this bill do to slow or stop (motorized use) in the Boulder-White Clouds?" Thea asked. "We should not support a bill that supports motorized use ... I argue that this will be way worse than status-quo."

Sarah Michael, chair of the Blaine County Commission, is also discouraged by the motor-friendly aspects of the bill. But Michael doesn't believe that another bill with less compromise can pass in the future. The Custer County Commissioners feel they should have been granted additional motorized access in the bill.

"Any bill that's going to go through Congress will have to be a compromise" Michael said. And in the future "it's going to get harder and harder to find a compromise.

"We have environmental groups split and a motorized community in opposition despite the concessions. It's not going to get any easier and I think Simpson needs to be commended for his effort on this. If the bill is defeated, it will take a lot of work to get the energy going again."

While Michael has stated that she is in support of the bill, she does not know how the rest of the commissioners will vote on Thursday.

As for Simpson's bill first appearance before Congress, the House Resources subcommittee hearing will begin at 2 p.m. Oct. 27, and last about an hour and a half. At that time testimony will be heard from two Democrats and four Republicans, Slater said. A full congressional committee hearing should be scheduled next month.

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