Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Idaho wilderness promoters take views to Capitol Hill

Simpson's bill splits Democrats and Republicans alike


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

There was no shortage of Idahoans in Washington, D.C., last week.

A sizeable contingent of Gem State residents descended on the nation's capital to weigh in on Rep. Mike Simpson's effort to designate wilderness and simultaneously precipitate economic development in and around the Boulder and White Cloud mountains. If any one point was clear, based on their comments and opinions, it was that generalizations will hardly suffice to summarize their varying positions.

Idaho residents who did not testify at a hearing of the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health on Thursday, Oct. 27, spent their time lobbying on behalf of, or against, Simpson's bill, called the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act.

The far-reaching bill proposes 300,011 acres of wilderness in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, and to give federally owned lands to Custer and Blaine counties, as well as to the cities of Challis, Mackay and Stanley. It would also lock in motorized access in parts of the White Clouds and designate wheelchair accessible trails. The hearing Thursday was the bill's first.

Hailey resident Kaz Thea observed that Simpson's bill seems to have turned Idaho politics on its ear.

There are conservative Republicans, like Custer County Commissioner Cliff Hansen and Simpson, supporting the wilderness bill, while tried and true liberals, like Thea and Custer County resident Carole King, oppose it. Thea said she felt momentum against the bill build during her visits to House offices.

"I came feeling nervous or discouraged," Thea said. "After talking with members of Congress, I was really excited. There was a lot of education that needed to occur."

But CIEDRA proponents expressed similar sentiments.

"I'm feeling much more optimistic now," said Blaine County Commission Chairwoman Sarah Michael, who was one of two Blaine County commissioners who voted two weeks ago to conditionally support the bill. "What struck me the most is that both the staff and the members of Congress want these wilderness bills to be worked out locally, as well as make sense nationally.

"It was very important for them to hear from local people about issues and concerns. The feedback I got was that people were very impressed with how hard Simpson has worked with the diverse recreation groups ... that he's worked with everyone."

King, who is well known for her accomplished music career, is the driving force behind the Rockies Prosperity Act, a wilderness bill that would unilaterally designate wilderness in road-free areas throughout the Rocky Mountain West. She stressed, however, that she is not fighting Simpson's effort to benefit her own.

"I don't care what bill it is. The whole entire Boulder-White Clouds deserves protection as wilderness, not only for scientific reasons but for economic reasons," she said. "It's not my bill versus their bill. I don't care whose bill it is. Where's the science in CIEDRA? The answer is: There is none."

King and Michael are both Democrats. Both are wilderness supporters. But they don't see eye to eye on Simpson's effort. They are representative of the split Simpson's labor has created among traditional wilderness supporters.

"It's very controversial. This one's controversial because the environmental community is divided," Michael said.

While he waited for the subcommittee hearing to begin, sitting in the third-floor hall of the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill, Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson attempted to explain some of the disagreement among his peers. He believes the hard-line approach to environmentalism is a tactic of the past. In supporting CIEDRA, he said his organization is demonstrating a willingness to seek new perspectives.

"I've been working on environmental issues for a long time, and I've watched us lose our position in the public discourse, and I've watched Americans stop identifying themselves as environmentalists," he said. "I think what we do is important. If we don't evolve our tactics with that, we're dumb. Things that don't evolve go extinct."

Johnson said he began working on wilderness designation efforts for the Boulder and White Cloud mountains before Simpson was first elected in 1998.

"The fact that we're here at a hearing is a good thing," he said. "One of the reasons ICL has been, in a sense, not part of a broader coalition is because so many people thought it wasn't possible."

But environmentalists, divided as they are, were not the only Idahoans in Washington last week.

Custer County Commissioner Hansen, Idaho Cattle Association President-elect Mike Webster and Salmon River Snowmobile Club President Dan Hammerbeck illustrated that conservatives are also divided.

Hammerbeck, a Stanley resident, asked subcommittee members not to shut motorized winter recreation out of the 300,011 acres of wilderness the congressman has proposed.

"Idaho has over 4 million acres of designated wilderness already," Hammerbeck said. "With an increasing demand for the use of our public lands, it is time for Congress to look at another designation."

He called for a move away from the mentality that public lands must be either fully developed or designated as wilderness.

"What we actually need today, and will need even more in the future, are quality backcountry lands available for a variety of recreation pursuits," he said. "It is time for Congress to consider a designation, such as Backcountry, that requires the federal agencies to maintain the primitive character of the land, while accommodating responsible use."

The Idaho Cattle Association is also against the legislation. Webster said that proposed grazing permit buyout language in the bill could give environmentalists a toehold they might use to attempt eliminating public land grazing.

"It is our concern that this legislation will embolden the extremist groups' efforts to establish a programmatic permanent permit retirement program and will set a precedent that will make such an effort more easily attainable," he said. "... I respect and understand the local ranchers' reluctant acceptance of this bill. Yet, I believe that work remains on this bill to strengthen and preserve the ranching heritage of this area and to ensure that it will remain a sustainable, viable part of the economy of Central Idaho."

Hansen, who in addition to being a Custer County commissioner, is a rancher and 63-year Stanley-area resident. He countered the opinions of his fellow conservatives and offered Custer County's qualified support.

"We are not in favor of any more wilderness," he said. "But, with that said, we certainly appreciate what Rep. Simpson has done by reaching out to all the agencies and entities."

He stressed the minute percentage of private land in his county and concluded with a call for passage of the bill.

"I would like to say that Custer County can only provide minimal services to our citizens and visitors because only 5 percent of the land base can be taxed," he said. "This is inadequate. We do receive PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) money, but because it is based on population, it is also inadequate to provide the services the public needs."




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