Friday, July 21, 2006

White Clouds wilderness a step closer

Grazing buyout provisions ditched from bill to get through committee

Express Staff Writer

Castle Peak is at the heart of the White Cloud Mountains, where wilderness designation could be pending. On Wednesday, the House Resources Committee passed Congressman Mike Simpson?s Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act. The bill will now go before the U.S. House of Representatives, possibly next week. Express file photo.

Idaho is a step closer to a Boulder-White Clouds wilderness and a bit more embroiled in a controversial debate about how to manage its public lands.

The U.S. House Resources Committee Wednesday, July 19, approved Congressman Mike Simpson's Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act by a voice vote. No dissentions were noted.

The sweeping legislation includes a major economic development package for Custer County, Blaine County's northern neighbor, as well as wilderness protection for a significant chunk of the Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges.

In all, the bill could funnel more than $13 million into rural Idaho and give away more than 3,600 acres of publicly owned land.

The bill would protect 315,215 acres of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains as wilderness, the most restrictive land management designation in Congress' bag of tricks. That's 15,204 acres more than proposed in recent drafts. What's more, a $7 million provision providing for federal grazing allotment buyouts in the White Clouds has been pulled out of the bill.

CIEDRA is a new breed of wilderness bill that would legislate solutions to an array of social, political and economic conundrums. Simpson said he has attempted to strike a middle ground that makes various stakeholders happy. While doing so, he has also alienated people on all sides of the issue.

The bill has been hotly contested and has split the traditionally united environmental community. Singer-songwriter Carole King, a proponent and lobbyist for the Rockies Prosperity Act, an expansive West-wide wilderness proposal, is upset with some environmentalists' willingness to support the bill.

"They're getting millions of dollars to pass this bill and call it a win for wilderness, when it's a loss for wilderness," she said. "Idaho Conservation League and The Wilderness Society ... apparently have no line where they say, 'Enough is enough.' It's shameful that groups with 'conservation' and 'wilderness' as their middle names are promoting such a harmful bill as good for wilderness."

Simpson's wilderness proposal would, indeed, strike compromises. It would allow, for example, mechanized equipment within wilderness boundaries to fight wildfires. And it would protect a little more than half of the road-free country in and around the two mountain ranges. What is not established as wilderness would be released from wilderness-study-area status.

What's more, King was upset the bill was noticed for a hearing simultaneously with a California wilderness bill, called the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act.

"To get it past the committee, they had to tie it to the California wilderness bill for an up-and-down vote," she said.

But Simpson's chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, said the two bills have not been tied together.

"This wasn't Mike Simpson ram-rodding it through. It just happened to work out with the (California) bill," Slater said. "They're not tied together like a package, but they leveraged each other" to be scheduled for hearings on Wednesday.

The committee's passage of Simpson's bill by voice vote constitutes successful clearing of a very significant hurdle on the bill's long road to becoming law. The bill was granted a committee hearing 10 months ago but appeared to be stalled in the interim.

It was "a big, significant step ... no small deal," said Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson, who pointed out that this is the farthest an Idaho wilderness bill has made it in Washington, D.C., since the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area was designated in 1980.

Idaho Director of The Wilderness Society Craig Gherke said he's pleased with Simpson's progress.

"The fact that it went through without a dissention helps a lot getting it to the House floor," he said. "I'm not going to downplay that this is controversial, but it certainly helped for it to come out of the committee the way that it did."

He called it a "running start instead of a stumbling start."

The Wednesday vote was only the beginning, however. The full House of Representatives, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, full Senate and President Bush must sign off on it before it becomes law. It could be killed anywhere along the way.

The bill could receive a vote from the full House next week before Congress breaks for August recess.

"I'm confident we can pass it on the floor of the House," Simpson said via telephone Wednesday afternoon. "I'm hopeful we can do it under suspension (meaning a bypass of the Committee on Rules and a two-thirds majority vote by the House), but we'll just have to wait and see what it looks like next week."

For Simpson, it's been a long road since his 1999 announcement that he intended to pursue a Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill.

"We're very pleased to get this bill that's been worked on for six years through the House committee," he said, calling the committee vote "the first major hurdle."

"It is a demonstration that we can find middle ground on these very contentious issues where all people can come out of it as a winner," he said.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to ultimate passage of the bill is time.

The 109th Congress will come to a close in December, but proponents believe that could be enough.

"It's not unusual for a bill to pass in the last hours of a Congress," Johnson said. "People get motivated and creative."

This is the second wilderness bill Slater has helped usher through the legislative process. The Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act of 2000, which Slater worked on for Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., went from committee markup to presidential signature in the span of four weeks.

"When people say we don't have enough time, I always come back to this one," he said. "We're three months ahead of that."

Slater conceded that CIEDRA is significantly more controversial and complex than the Oregon legislation, but he remained optimistic.

He said Simpson would speak with Sens. Mike Crapo and Larry Craig, both Idaho Republicans, sometime next week about the bill's prospects in the Senate.

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