Wednesday, October 26, 2005

County supports White Clouds wilderness bill

Congressional hearing set for Thursday

Express Staff Writer

Linn Kincannon, Central Idaho director for the Idaho Conservation League, tells the commissioners that it's been 25 years since the last wilderness designation in Idaho. Photo by David N. Seelig

The Blaine County Commission last week lent lukewarm but perhaps crucial support to a proposed wilderness bill for the Boulder and White Clouds mountains.

During a meeting Thursday, Oct. 20, commissioners passed a resolution "conditionally" supporting Rep. Mike Simpson's Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA), which would protect 300,000 acres of federal land north of Ketchum. The bill will make its first appearance in Congress this Thursday, Oct. 27, during a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.

Blaine County's resolution passed by a vote of 2-0, with Commissioner Dennis Wright abstaining. Custer County, where most of the land included in the bill is located, has also expressed support.

Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael, who is attending the hearing in Washington, D.C., said in an interview that she will hand copies of the resolution to the members of the subcommittee. Lindsay Slater, Simpson's chief of staff, said the congressman will consider the resolution carefully.

"What the local commissioners say will mean a lot," Slater said.

Drafted as a compromise with motorized recreation interests, the bill has split the ranks of Idaho conservationists. Public testimony given during a hearing before the commissioners two weeks ago showed a similar split.

"It's a compromise that is probably the only way we're going to have (new) wilderness in Idaho," Michael said Thursday in defense of her vote.

She said wilderness designation is needed soon to prevent the creation of more unauthorized trails by all-terrain vehicle owners who have been driving cross-country throughout the area.

Even so, the commissioners' resolution states they are withholding unqualified support for the bill until a final version appears out of committee.

The resolution points to four areas of uncertainty:

· Whether land in the North Fork of the Big Lost River drainage will be added to the bill. Michael said she has lobbied for such an addition, but said Simpson has stated that he will abide by a local agreement between skiers and snowmobilers that allows snowmobiling on part of that land.

· Whether all grazing permits in the proposed wilderness will be bought out. In its current form, the bill appropriates $7 million to pay local ranchers who volunteer to give up grazing rights. Commissioner Tom Bowman, who said Thursday he had heard those provisions may be deleted, added the point of concern to the resolution.

Slater acknowledged in an interview that that section of the bill may be modified.

"The straight buy-out could be difficult," he said. "But there are other ways to get to the same thing. We have to."

· How federal land surrounding the proposed wilderness will be managed for motorized use. The bill states that it will be done in accordance with existing travel plans. However, adjacent land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has no such plan.

· Whether there will be one or more trails created for wheelchair access. The commissioners support development of such a trail.

"This is a way to ensure that the bill we looked at the other day doesn't get watered down," Bowman said of the commission's conditional support. "If (the final bill) is not something that we can stomach, then we'll pull our support."

Wright said he had decided to remain neutral on the bill partly due to the clear split in public opinion, but he also pointed to what he considered weaknesses in the legislation.

Foremost, he said, is the lack of any prohibition against development of a molybdenum mine in the White Clouds. A large open-pit mine and access road were proposed in 1968 by the American Smelting and Refining Co. (ASARCO) at the base of Castle Peak, the tallest mountain in the range. The mine was eventually defeated, but the company still holds mineral rights there. The Wilderness Act, passed by Congress in 1964, prohibits establishment of new mineral claims in wilderness areas but allows development of existing claims.

Simpson's bill permits the federal government to buy existing mineral claims within the proposed wilderness from willing sellers. However, noting that prices for molybdenum are on the rise, Wright stated, "I think the risk is climbing that ASARCO could either sell those interests or begin a process of development."

With the establishment of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in 1972, new mining in the White Clouds was limited to developments that do not "substantially impair" the SNRA's scenic values. Jeff Gabardi, mining engineer with the Sawtooth National Forest, said in an interview that there is "some possibility" that molybdenum mining could be resurrected in the White Clouds, but he said it would be tough for ASARCO to convince the Forest Service that an open-pit mine could be developed without violating the SNRA's restrictions.

Simpson's bill splits its wilderness designations into three areas separated by motorized corridors. Wright criticized a provision in the bill that requires replacement of any motorized trails closed for resource management purposes. He pointed out that no national forest management plan mandates such replacement.

"I'm very concerned ... that we may be setting some very damaging precedents for the future of public lands," he said.

Wright's critique also went to the heart of the bill's purpose—protecting wilderness while at the same time transferring some federal land to local ownership for economic development. He suggested that the economic problems of Custer County "maybe have been illogically combined with the issue of the White Clouds."

"I'd rather see many more dollars handed to the county and fewer acres," he said.

Despite his concerns, Wright said, he appreciated the work Simpson had put into drafting a bill palatable to all the major interests concerned after decades of wrangling.

"He's really dragged that dead horse the farthest down the road than anyone in history," he said.

Idaho conservationists scheduled to testify at Thursday's hearing are Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson and Custer County resident Carole King. King will represent supporters of the Rockies Prosperity Act, a competing bill that would designate more wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds. That bill, however, does not have the support of the Idaho congressional delegation.

Also testifying will be representatives from the Salmon River Snowmobile Club, the Idaho Cattle Association and Custer County.

Nikki Watts, Simpson's communications director, said the congressman hopes to have the bill before the full Congress before this session ends in December.

"We'll just have to wait and see what happens on Thursday," she said.

Despite the bill's carefully crafted compromises, Michael expressed pessimism about the likelihood of Congress's authorizing as much wilderness as it calls for.

"Frankly, I think the motorized community will kill this bill," she said.

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