Friday, March 9, 2007

Idaho wilderness bills reintroduced in Congress

Journey not expected to be any easier than last year

Express Staff Writer

The proposed Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act would designate as wilderness 319,000 acres in the Boulder and White Clouds Mountains, including the upper portion of Galena Peak, above. Photo by David N. Seelig

The opportunity to secure Idaho's first new wilderness area in 27 years slipped away last December when two bills died in Congress.

But both bills have been reintroduced in the new, Democrat-controlled Congress. While the 110th Congress is likely more wilderness-friendly than the Republican-dominated 109th, that doesn't necessarily mean the bills will have an easier ride.

The Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA), created by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, would include three new wilderness areas totaling more than 319,000 acres in the Boulder and White Clouds Mountains, north of Ketchum.

The Owhyee Canyonlands bill, spearheaded by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, would create a 517,000-acre wilderness area in southwest Idaho.

Both bills, however, are viewed as "new" wilderness, since they rely on a heavy slate of concessions for their approval.

CIEDRA would give away more than 5,000 acres of public land, mostly to Custer County and its municipalities, for economic development purposes.

The Owyhee legislation includes a $15 million buyout for ranchers who would give up more than 2,619 acres of private land and grazing rights on 54,000 acres of public land.

Last December, as the sun began to set on the 109th Congress and CIEDRA, Simpson found himself trapped between a rock and a hard place.

On one side was Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who was demanding that the concessions in CIEDRA be delivered up front.

On the other side was Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who was saying the concessions "cheapened" the wilderness designation process.

Rahall is now the chairman of the weighty House Committee on Natural Resources, which CIEDRA will eventually have to run through.

"We've met with Chairman Rahall, and he said once he gets the committee up and running and he has time to go through the bill, he'll get back to us," Lindsay Slater, Simpson's chief of staff, said Thursday. "So we're just patiently waiting."

Slater acknowledged that Simpson is willing to make some modifications to the bill based on Rahall's feedback, but that "we don't know what that is yet."

"(Simpson) has made it clear that he understands that Chairman Rahall will have issues we have to address," Slater said. "At the same time, (Simpson) has explained to the chairman that he has come up with a compromise that is balanced on a knife's edge.

"But (Simpson) really wants to work with the chairman to make this work for everybody."

Rahall's communications director, Allyson Ivins Groff, said Rahall "is willing to work with Rep. Simpson on the matter," as reported by The Associated Press. Ivins Groff could not be reached for additional comment.

Lindsay Nothern, Crapo's press secretary, told the AP, "We do not plan major changes. We worked very hard the last five years to get this bill put together."

CIEDRA's proposed concessions have spawned massive drama in the conservation community, turning old allies into enemies. The Idaho Conservation League and The Wilderness Society support the bill despite the land giveaways.

"The ICL accepted CIEDRA as it was because we think it's that important to designate this wilderness and begin protecting lands in Idaho again," said Linn Kincannon, ICL's Central Idaho director.

Meanwhile, a large coalition of environmental organizations, including a group of retired Sawtooth National Recreation Area land managers, remain vehemently opposed to the legislation.

"If they think they're going to reintroduce this with all this crap in it, then they are delusional," said Scott Phillips, former SNRA land manager, in December. "I mean, come on. I am amazed, flabbergasted."

Slater said he does not know when discussions with Rahall will resume, or when CIEDRA could land a hearing.

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