There's been little word on how a monumental wilderness and economic development bill for central Idaho is faring this congressional session, but opponents are beginning to draw lines in the sand, which could signify a forthcoming battle.
In May, a wealthy, off-road motorized-recreation advocate hired a former aide to U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, to help fight the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, which passed the U.S. House last year but stalled in Craig's committee in the Senate. The bill was reintroduced in the 110th Congress on Jan. 4 as HR 222.
If passed, the bill could redefine wilderness legislation. It would designate 318,765 acres of wilderness in three contiguous wilderness areas and establish a 503,737-acre management area surrounding the wilderness. It would release four management areas from wilderness study status. It would permanently designate motorized access in parts of the mountain ranges, including a motorized corridor bisecting the designated wilderness areas, and it would establish a state motorized recreation park near Boise.
Perhaps most controversially, CIEDRA would transfer 5,693 acres of public land into private ownership to stimulate the rural, agrarian economy of Custer County, Blaine County's neighbor to the northeast.
CIEDRA is a high-profile bill both because of the potentially precedent-setting nature of the compromise and because the terrain in the two mountain ranges is the largest unprotected road-free landmass in the conterminous United States. It is popular among hikers, mountain bikers, off-road-vehicle users and equestrians, and it is longstanding cattle and sheep country.
In May, Joe B. Scott, grandson of supermarket founder Joe Albertson and promoter of motorized access to public land, hired Craig's former communications director, Mike Tracy. Tracy will consult and lobby against CIEDRA, which was crafted by U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
Sandra Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Scott's Idaho Land Fund and public lands director of the Idaho State Snowmobile Association, said Scott opposes the wilderness designation because it would forbid mechanized vehicle access in an area now popular with ORVs, snowmobiles and mountain bikes.
Simpson's bill has not yet received a hearing in the Democrat-controlled Congress, and Simpson Chief of Staff Lindsay Slater said he is not sure when such a hearing may occur.
Still, the hiring of Craig's trusted former adviser—Tracy was the senator's top spokesman for nearly a decade until April 2006—is a sign opposing sides are beginning to brace themselves for a fight later this year and are jockeying for access to lawmakers who make the decisions.
"Mike Tracy has a history of working on resource issues, on public land issues and he understands the needs of the people," Mitchell said. "The fact that he worked for Larry Craig is certainly part of his resume, but it's not the thing that attracted us to Mike Tracy."
Tracy said he'll be doing "basic public relations work."
"What we're trying to do is get information out about the bill that's factual and that's germane to the legislation and to the people it will affect," Tracy said, adding that he fears a measure that emerges this year could be more restrictive than the one that died last December.
Simpson aides said the hiring of Craig's former staffer could be a sign the bill's foes are concerned it could fare well in Congress this year.
Simpson is now trying to amass support for the bill among lawmakers, including Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V., the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said Nikki Watts, a Simpson spokeswoman in Boise.
"It's disappointing that individuals such as Sandra Mitchell feel it necessary to hire a high-priced firm to mislead the public on U.S. Rep. Simpson's legislation that is overwhelmingly supported by Idahoans," Watts said.
House Committee on Natural Resources Communications Director Allison Groff said Simpson and Rahall have talked and are working to alleviate the chairman's concerns.
"But there's no specific action right now," Groff said. "It will probably be a matter of having a hearing so the committee can communicate their concerns."
The bill has not been without controversy. It has divided typically united groups on multiple sides of the issue. One of the bill's proponents, the Idaho Conservation League, maintains that motorized users will fare well under CIEDRA.
"Motorized users do well in this bill, and that's been really difficult for us to accept," said Idaho Conservation League Central Idaho Director Linn Kincannon. "I'll bet that most motorized users don't know the details of this bill. If they did, like the Idaho Conservation League, they'd find enough to like about it to pass the bill, to move forward."
For much of last year, Craig opposed the measure.
For instance, he demanded that Congress pay all ranchers and other stakeholders their promised compensation for losing grazing access.
This year, Craig is waiting to see if the bill makes it to the Senate again—and if it does, how Democrats change it—before deciding whether to back it.
"If the bill came forward as we saw the finished product last year, he'd probably support that," said Sidney Smith, a Craig spokesman in Boise. "But we're probably a long way from seeing a finished product from the House side."
For her part, Kincannon said the local solution is the kind of legislation Craig has historically championed.
"I know I'm kind of a moderate voice saying, 'Hey, it's an Idaho solution worked out between competing interests,' but how else do you make things work in a democracy?" she asked. "What's good for Idaho? What's good for those mountains? What's good for those 60 species of wildlife that live in there?"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.