In 2004 and 2005, when Congressman Mike Simpson embarked on backpacking trips in the White Cloud Mountains of Central Idaho, his groups had a mantra: "What happens in the mountains stays in the mountains." But rules are meant for breaking, and the congressman allowed a handful of reporters to join him on his third backpacking trip in as many years last weekend. The following story, written about the congressman's Aug. 24 to Aug. 27 trip, spills some of the beans.
The crags of the White Cloud Mountains towering around him, Mike Simpson sat Friday afternoon on a massive fallen tree trunk to catch his breath and take in the view of wild country that would be protected as wilderness if his pending wilderness and economic development legislation becomes law.
The Republican congressman's soiled blue baseball cap, stubble-covered chin and hiking shoes stood in sharp contrast to his typically starched, inside-the-Beltway appearance, but he appeared to genuinely enjoy his wild surroundings.
"I don't believe there's anybody who's seen this who doesn't think we should protect it," he said. "The solitude here is just—you almost need to come out here from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the world to find yourself."
Simpson's backcountry trip, his third August trip to the wilds of the White Clouds in as many years, came just a month after his wilderness and economic development bill, called the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. Consideration by the Senate is pending, but even if Congress does not pass the legislation this year, it is not something Simpson said he will abandon.
"If it doesn't pass, we'll reintroduce it next session," he said.
The bill proposes to designate 319,900 acres of wilderness in the Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges, as well as give more than 5,000 acres of federally-owned land to Custer County and several of its inherent rural cities. A proposed federal grazing permit buyout program was pulled from the bill earlier this summer in order to get it out of the House Resources Committee.
The Boulder and White Cloud mountains collectively constitute the lower 48 United States' largest road-free area not currently protected as wilderness.
Amid the grandeur that overflows from the White Clouds, Simpson found time to wax about the seven-year road to this point in the legislative process. He said his bill, which could resolve a 30-year wilderness dispute and simultaneously generate economic development in rural Idaho by giving away roughly 5,000 acres of federal land, is the final hope for some time to come for resolution to the conflict.
To work toward resolution, the homily he preached was about compromise. That he has struck something close to an accord is evident in opposition from constituents on the far left and far right, he said.
"It has been a fascinating process. It's something that can work in other places and for other issues outside the wilderness process," he said. "When something's imposed, it rarely works."
Like his bill, he's walking what he described as a political knife-edge. After all, for a conservative Republican in a conservative state, supporting wilderness—or, in his case, pushing for wilderness designation—is something of a political stunt. He concluded that working on wilderness and economic development legislation for Central Idaho has been the toughest task he's undertaken in eight years as a Washington, D.C., politician.
His motivation is not political, he said. If it were, biting off an issue as contentious as an unresolved 30-year wilderness dispute—and in the process splitting the environmental community and splitting traditionally conservative constituents—would not be the most attractive option.
"It's the right thing to do, and it's what you're elected to do," he said. "If all you're worried about is being re-elected, you shouldn't be in Congress."
In the midst of all the politicking, consensus building, line drawing and sales pitching of the seven-year process, Simpson said the Boulder and White Cloud mountains and the communities surrounding them crawled farther under his skin. It is difficult for him not to take the project personally.
"It's hard to not get emotionally attached to it when you see this country," he said. "But you kind of have to. To be a good broker, you have to detach yourself to some degree."
He said there are things in the bill he doesn't like, but they're necessary to make the legislation something with a seed of a possibility.
"This is not a perfect bill. It's a perfect compromise," he said. "The whole world is compromise."
Sawtooth National Recreation Area Recreation Manager Ed Cannady organized and guided all three of Simpson's White Cloud backcountry trips.
Cannady knows the mountain ranges of Central Idaho as well as, or better than, anyone, and his passion for the wilds is easily apparent.
He said last weekend's trip into the Big Boulder Creek drainage on the east side of the White Clouds penetrated inspiring country.
"It's my favorite drainage in the White Clouds," he said. "The number of peaks. The number of lakes. The open alpine tundra. You're just ringed by alpine peaks. It's just an amazing place."
The ranger said he is impressed by Simpson's eagerness to hike under his own power. He said it is also evident that Simpson truly appreciates the wild heart of the wild White Cloud Mountains.
"On the first trip (to Middle Chamberlain Lake in 2004), it snowed. It was the wildest weather you could imagine, and he got caught up in the drama of it. It was fun to watch him stand out in a storm and appreciate the power and ferocity of it.
"He appreciates it enough that he wants to deal with it. He doesn't fish. He doesn't hunt. He's doing it to come and appreciate the place, and I have to appreciate that."
Although he respects the congressman's zeal for the omnipresent wilds and his willingness to confront a contentious 30-year dispute, Cannady said wilderness designation in the White Clouds would probably not change management in the area a whole lot.
"Wilderness designation here shouldn't change anything," he said. "It would probably increase our chances for getting trail funding, funding for wilderness rangers. It would give us more leverage, but as far as the day-to-day management, it wouldn't change much here.
"What it would do is ensure it is always managed this way."
During the course of the four-day U.S. Forest Service-supported backcountry trip, Simpson and his staff were unequivocally laid back. But the congressman didn't lose sight of the politics that led him to the White Clouds three years in a row.
He shared about his Blackfoot, Idaho youth. He talked about his early trips to the mountains of Central Idaho. He talked about political risk and what it's like wearing a little bit of green beneath the red cloak of his party.
He said he enjoys the relatively large group's collective hikes into the high country, but he likes taking short walks by himself just as much. Sitting with camera in hand and pondering the wildness around him brings a sense of fulfillment, he said.
As he sat at the group's base camp in Quicksand Meadows Friday afternoon, he shook out his sore legs and waxed a bit about the three-mile ascent he'd made to Walker Lake at the head of Big Boulder Creek that morning.
"It's a beautiful hike. Those high mountain lakes are gorgeous—just unique country," he said. "The vertical striations in the rock in those mountains—it would have been nice to see how that happened. But, if nothing else, your imagination can take you back there.
"The ruggedness of the mountains—it gives you some perspective on what Lewis and Clark and these mountain men did to get here."
CIEDRA to hit airwaves
Congressman Mike Simpson's four-day backcountry trip in the White Cloud Mountains last weekend was not without media attention. A Public Broadcasting Service television crew filmed the congressman, his staff and Forest Service rangers in the backcountry for an episode of "NOW," which will air in the coming months.