Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Protecting wilderness and communities

Guest opinion by Sarah Michael

As chair of the Blaine County Commission, I was in Washington, D.C., last week to talk to members of Congress about Idaho's Boulder-White Clouds Mountains. I attended the hearing on the "Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act," Congressman Mike Simpson's comprehensive proposal to address the future of this special part of our state.

Some critics of the Simpson legislation suggest that Idaho wilderness areas used to be protected through "pure wilderness bills", not complicated by having to address surrounding lands and community needs. Wrong. In places like Idaho's River of No Return and Hells Canyon, our congressional delegation took care to fit the wilderness into the context of other legitimate uses of surrounding lands, including by leaving out areas some strongly advocated for wilderness preservation.

Wilderness is not only about land and wildlife, but also about people—those who, hunt, hike and fish, but also those who live in nearby rural communities. The Simpson bill has a good chance of succeeding because it will protect wilderness within a framework that addresses recreation issues and community needs. While my fellow Blaine County commissioners and I have expressed concern about some details, I appreciate Congressman Simpson's efforts to work with all stakeholders and find a balance.

We wilderness advocates must not forget that local opinion plays a crucial role in whether wilderness will be designated. For lack of broad local support, our dream of protecting wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds has stalled for three decades while, year after year, the wilderness has continued to be nibbled away.

Many of us have a vision of a perfect wilderness area. But everyone's vision is different. After talking with members of Congress of both parties, I was consistently told that no bill will pass dealing with an Idaho public land issue unless it is championed by our own congressional delegation. That means for such a proposal to gain any traction in Congress, it already must have been judged to make sense at the local and state level. Many diverse local users groups and interests must be heard—collaboration is the building block for action.

With that goal in mind, Congressman Simpson has spent years meeting with diverse interests, testing and adjusting, seeking a workable middle ground. I was pleased to find that members of our Idaho delegation and the congressional committee showed real respect for his tireless work. That's what an effective process is all about. 

I was also pleased to learn that protecting wilderness has not become a partisan issue as so many other national issues seem to be. Indeed, just this week President Bush has signed a law protecting a New Mexico wilderness area—a law strongly supported by that state's congressional delegation across party lines. Most of the Boulder-White Clouds area is in Custer County, just north of us. Custer is a Republican county. Blaine County is a Democratic county. While there remain some details to be discussed, both counties support Mike Simpson's continuing efforts. The legislation offers us realistic solutions. Wilderness is one. Modest provisions to enhance the economic future for local communities are another. And recreational opportunities for diverse groups are maintained. It is the three in combination that gives promise of a package that Congress can actually pass.

The result is broad support for the common ground Simpson has staked out—and I saw firsthand what a big impression that made on members of Congress of both political parties.

At long last we may be on the threshold of fulfilling a generations-old dream for the Boulder-White Clouds—a dream for that goes deep among Idahoans, bridging the usual chasms of partisan and urban/rural debates.

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