If U.S. Sen. Larry Craig has taken a position on additional wilderness in Idaho, he didn't tip his hand Wednesday afternoon on Capitol Hill.
The U.S. Senate got its first look Wednesday, Sept. 27, at two different bills to designate additional wilderness in the Gem State. Craig, the senior Idaho Republican, chaired a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests hearing, which examined the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, sponsored by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and the Owyhee Initiative, sponsored by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
Craig emphasized his commitment to giving each bill objective consideration in the Senate.
"I have given these bills a fair and open hearing," he said. "The result is that the pubic had the chance to vet important land-use policy, and it was done in a timely manner.
"As with any major compromise, there are always groups that will oppose either on philosophical grounds or because of a lack of inclusion. It is very important to me that all have their voices heard, and that is what I have tried to do today."
Craig's support is essential if the bills to protect 319,900 acres of wilderness in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains and 517,000 acres in the Owyhee Canyonlands are to clear Congress.
With Congress set to recess by the end of the week for the upcoming election, there is no chance for immediate passage. Congress will return for a lame-duck session in November.
Craig said he will continue to work on the bills—including an Oregon-based wilderness bill—during October and told administration officials they should be prepared to do so as well.
"It's questionable whether all or some of them could move forward," he said. "There may be a path forward. Precedents are being made in nearly all these bills."
The Idaho bills are, in fact, new breeds of wilderness: They are so much more than lines on a map.
CIEDRA 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.
CIEDRA was passed by the House earlier this summer. If the Senate gives its blessing before the 109th Congress adjourns in November or December, the bill would move on to President Bush for a signature.
Simpson Chief of Staff Lindsay Slater said he's hopeful CIEDRA will move forward in November.
"We're optimistic we'll have time to get done when we get back after the election," he said.
In addition to protecting 517,000 acres of the Owyhee Canyonlands as wilderness, the Owyhee Initiative would ensure preservation of Native American cultural resources, preserve off-road vehicle access to certain areas, protect water rights and create joint management among local, state and federal governments.
In CIEDRA, Simpson brokered the legislation among all of the various stakeholders. In the Owyhee Initiative, Crapo asked stakeholders to sit down and hammer it out.
Both models do, indeed, redefine the longstanding model used in the United States to designate wilderness.
"This can't be called solely a ranching, wilderness, Air Force or tribal bill," Crapo said. "It is comprehensive land management legislation. Each group negotiated aggressively, and now, remarkably, each supports the objectives of those with whom they had previous conflict."
Simpson noted the historic context of the Senate considering two Idaho wilderness bills simultaneously. And both bills were created "in Idaho by Idahoans."
"CIEDRA meets the needs of today's users and secures the future for generations of Idahoans who want to continue using and enjoying our beautiful Boulder-White Clouds," Simpson said. "We have a rare opportunity to control our own destiny by crafting legislation that fits the needs of the people who live and recreate in Central Idaho, while creating substantive wilderness.
"It may well be another 25 years before we see this chance again. By enacting CIEDRA, we can put to rest many longstanding conflicts and move ahead to a stronger, more secure economy in the rugged, beautiful and productive heart of Idaho."
Lynne Stone, executive director of the Boulder White Clouds Council, listened to the hearing on the Internet and said it "wasn't dull."
A CIEDRA supporter, she said the bill definitely has a chance to pass this year.
"I think the fact that Custer County and Blaine County are both supporting this and that Larry Craig is going around asking questions and getting the accurate information that he needs—it's good," she said.
"It's obvious that he doesn't show great enthusiasm for wilderness, but with so many people, he has to respect, and I'm sure he does, the hard work of Mike Simpson and Mike Crapo," Stone said.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Craig did acknowledge the bills' boons.
"These carefully negotiated agreements changed adversaries to allies," he said. "To ensure those relationships remain whole, we need to build in assurances to see that the obligations are met and trust is maintained. Only after that can I agree that this is truly a balanced agreement, and wilderness can be designated."