For the fourth time in five years, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, embarked on a backcountry camping trip in the White Cloud Mountains.
Simpson is the architect of controversial wilderness and economic development legislation focusing on the Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges, which collectively constitute the largest unprotected road-free piece of land in the lower 48 United States.
During the trip last weekend, Simpson said the bill is not likely to move this month. He remained positive, however, that his Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act stands a legitimate shot at becoming law before year's end.
For three days, from Aug. 2-4, Simpson and several staff members, as well as a handful of reporters, U.S. Forest Service personnel and a conservationist, lounged and hiked near the shores of 9,200-foot Phyllis Lake. It's a scenic mountain tarn that would not be included inside Simpson's wilderness area boundaries. It would, however, be part of the overall package.
Simpson is proposing the first-ever backcountry wheelchair access as part of a wilderness bill. The Phyllis Lake access would be outside the wilderness area boundary, but another access along the West Fork of the East Fork of the Salmon River would breach the wilderness area boundary—a first.
It's controversial because the Wilderness Act doesn't allow motorized or mechanized access, and wheelchairs are certainly mechanized and the trails needed to accommodate them are anything but primitive.
Erik Schultz, director of the Arthur B. Schultz Foundation, has been in a wheelchair since a skiing accident in the Sierras paralyzed him from the waist down about a decade ago. As the man who orchestrated the push for wheelchair access in Simpson's legislation, he says the inspiration for the trails came from some loose language the congressman included in an early draft.
"I just asked him to give it some teeth," he said. "Specifically, the proposal for primitive-access wheelchair trails would be the first ever of its kind for a wilderness bill."
Though Phyllis Lake is outside the boundaries of Simpson's proposed wilderness area, it is in road-free, motor-free country. The trail leading to Phyllis Lake ascends about 200 feet over six-tenths of a mile from the nearest road, a rough two-track that stems from Fourth of July Creek Road.
Despite its short length, the short trail is too steep and rocky to easily accommodate wheelchairs. Simpson's legislation would remodel and reroute the trail to meander across the valley in switchbacks that lengthen the overall distance but smooth out the path.
On Saturday afternoon, while part of the group was hiking, Simpson sat by the shore of Phyllis Lake with a sketchbook in hand. He admired a cluster of pine trees on the other side of the lake and remarked at the spectacular nature of the evident geology.
Wheelchair access is only one of numerous controversial provisions in CIEDRA. Wilderness designation, in and of itself, is controversial. Also, proposals to give public land away into private hands have met with significant resistance from the conservation community.
Moreover, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Carole King is an ardent opponent of Simpson's bill. The bill compromises the intent of the Wilderness Act, she has said.
King is a supporter of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, a bill that would simultaneously designate wilderness throughout the Northern Rockies, including a sizeable portion of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains.