An important wild card is finally on the table.
Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, released on Friday long-awaited details about nearly all of the land gifts he is proposing in his Custer County economic stimulus and Boulder-White Clouds wilderness legislation, called the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act.
The House Resources Committee has been considering the legislation without the benefit of most of the proposed land gifts since last October. If the committee passes the bill sometime later this month, a vote by the full House could occur sometime this summer.
In sum, Simpson is proposing to transfer nine to 13 parcels—totaling 3,605 acres—of Bureau of Land Management land to the residents of Custer County and three of its inherent cities. The properties featured in Simpson's Friday, June 9, announcement are in addition to 162 acres of Sawtooth National Recreation Area lands proposed as gifts to the city of Stanley and to Custer County.
The lands proposed in Simpson's Friday announcement are also in addition to an undetermined amount of land to be given to Blaine County, said Laurel Hall, Simpson's natural resources director. Additionally, the bill proposes 960 acres of Bureau of Land Management land to be transferred to the state of Idaho for a motorized recreation park near Boise.
The land gifts are a piece of a much larger puzzle, a new breed of wilderness bill designed to legislate solutions to an array of political, social and economic conundrums. If it passes, the Boulder-White Cloud mountains would contain three new wilderness areas, totaling 300,011 acres.
The properties featured in Simpson's Friday announcement range widely, from rangeland in the Pahsimeroi River valley to riverside property on the banks of the Salmon River in Clayton. The proposed uses for the lands range, as well, from home sites and city parks to wind-based power generation. In some cases, the stated uses are very general.
"This land will go to the city of Challis for development or any other public purpose," reads a summary of the proposed use for 280 acres adjacent to the city.
According to Simpson, the lands identified for transfer were selected because they will provide essential services to the people of Custer County, correct historic trespass issues and provide economic opportunities to Custer County and its communities.
The controversial land gifts are one of the most prominent pegs the bill's opponents have used to hang their objections.
"The giveaway part of (CIEDRA) is particularly disturbing," said Janine Blaeloch, director of Seattle-based Western Lands Project, a public land watchdog group. "The public has been waiting for so long for the Custer County commissioners to cherry pick what they wanted and take it out of the public domain. And I don't think that's a fair way to treat the public or the public land."
That said, Blaeloch said she's not happy about any of the proposed land gifts. Though some of them have merit, she said they should be treated like any other federal land trade.
"If there are actual public conveyances that have legitimate public benefit, they should be considered on their own merits," she said.
But different perspectives on the land gifts underscore a rift the bill has created in the environmental community. The Idaho Conservation League is one of the large environmental organizations that believes the land gifts are a worthwhile concession if the tradeoff means more wilderness.
"Getting more than 300,000 acres of wilderness, ending the 26-year gridlock of wilderness designation in Idaho and having the possibility of future wilderness designation is worth trying to make a deal with other Idahoans who don't like wilderness," said Linn Kincannon, the conservation league's central Idaho director.
"We don't like the land transfers, but we recognize that Custer County is looking for some help. And this is the help they want."
Kincannon said she is pleased that Simpson whittled the number of acres down to 3,605.
"That's half of what had been proposed recently," she said. "Given the sensitivity of land transfers, it's good to make it as small as possible."
Early this year, Simpson asked the Custer County Commission to identify Bureau of Land Management lands for transfer to the county and the cities of Challis, Mackay and Clayton. The commission identified approximately 8,000 acres of public lands and, as part of its own public review process, whittled the lands in question down to 6,495 acres.
Simpson released the recommended list and corresponding maps on March 16 and accepted comments on the proposed land gifts through April 24.
"Based on the comments I received and discussions with county residents, I have removed nearly 3,000 acres from the recommended list," Simpson said. "The remaining lands were selected because they minimized effects to adjoining property owners, recreationists and the environment, while providing significant opportunities for public benefits."
Simpson reiterated that public access will be maintained across all transferred lands. He said he will require that each of the transferred parcels be saddled with deed restrictions requiring public access on roads and trails.
"This will ensure that hunting, fishing and motorized use, and any other access across the respective lands, will not be affected," he said. "... I have kept this process as open as possible and relied heavily on the comments I have received in determining which lands to eliminate for consideration."
Two proposed land gifts—one 360-acre parcel to be given to Custer County and one 360-acre parcel to be given to the city of Mackay—are still under consideration.
For specific details about Congressman Mike Simpson's proposed land gifts, including maps, go to www.house.gov/simpson/ciedra.shtml.