Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Idaho’s wilderness revival

Success in the Owyhees may give Boulder-White Clouds’ legislation traction

Express Staff Writer

The white limestone slopes of an unnamed 11,342-foot mountain in the rugged White Cloud Mountains—known as D.O. Lee Peak to climbers and some locals—tower over the upper Warm Springs Creek drainage. Rep. Mike Simpson’s Central Idaho Development and Recreation Act legislation (CIEDRA) includes the entire area shown in this photo in the 76,657-acre White Clouds Wilderness. Photo by Jason Kauffman

Momentum toward passage of Idaho's first wilderness bill since 1980 has some wondering if that success could prompt the creation of even more wilderness in the state.

Last Thursday, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved a massive package of land management bills on a 73-21 vote. Included in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which still requires the approval of the House, is Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo's Owyhee canyonlands wilderness legislation.

During a conference call with reporters that day, Crapo said that while the passage of the bill will be significant, ensuring that the legislation's acquisition of private land inholdings in wilderness and funding for a conservation center and science review happens will require additional work.

"We cannot take our eye off the ball," Crapo said.

Crapo's bill would preserve 517,196 acres of high-desert uplands and steep-sided canyons in six wilderness areas—ranging from the 12,468-acre Pole Creek Wilderness to the 269,016-acre Owyhee River Wilderness—in Idaho's remote southwest corner. Idaho already has six wilderness areas totaling 4,005,754 acres.

Crapo's bill would also protect 316 miles of rivers in the Owyhee, Bruneau and Jarbidge river systems under Wild and Scenic designations and release nearly 200,000 acres of wilderness study areas to multiple use.

If it's approved by the U.S House in the coming days or weeks—and most observers believe it will—the omnibus land bill, which includes more than 150 separate pieces of legislation, would be forwarded to President Barack Obama's desk for signing, which seems likely.

Fresh off his legislative victory on Thursday, Crapo speculated about what the ramifications might be if his bill sails through its remaining Washington, D.C., journey. He said a beneficiary of his bill's success may be Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson's Boulder-White Clouds bill—the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act—which would establish 318,765 acres of new wilderness in the scenic alpine ranges north of Ketchum.

"The success of the Owyhee Initiative is a strong precursor to the CIEDRA bill," he said.

Crapo, who had hoped to see CIEDRA included in the omnibus land bill, predicted that Congress will soon consider a second package of land bills that includes Simpson's legislation.

"There will be a next step, another lands package," he said.

Similar to the coalition that created CIEDRA, a diverse working group of Idaho conservation groups, county commissioners and ranchers crafted the Owyhee bill.

Crapo said the legislation's passage in the Senate was due primarily to the efforts of the working group. From the outset of their talks—dubbed the Owyhee Initiative—the senator said he would support and introduce as legislation whatever product they came up with, a promise he lived up to.

On complicated land-management issues like wilderness legislation, Crapo believes the process developed on bills like the Owyhee Initiative will become more common in Washington. Though this will no doubt work for more moderate groups like the Idaho Conservation League—which supports both the Owyhee Initiative and CIEDRA—it will likely not be favored by some other conservationists.

The executive director of the Western Watersheds Project in Hailey, Jon Marvel, has been an outspoken critic of these kinds of collaborative efforts.

Most of the lands targeted for wilderness designation under CIEDRA are within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, with a small share in the northern Boulders dropping over into U.S Bureau of Land Management lands south of Challis. The bill would designate a 110,438-acre Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness in the southern Boulder Mountains outside of Ketchum. Further to the north and east, the legislation would establish a 76,657-acre White Clouds Wilderness and a 131,670-acre Jerry Peak Wilderness.

CIEDRA also proposes to convey more than 5,000 acres of public land to Stanley and Custer County and release 131,616 acres of wilderness study areas to multiple use.

In an interview last Friday, Simpson predicted that the Owyhee legislation will face few hurdles during the rest of its legislative journey. Though each bill was crafted in slightly different ways—CIEDRA was drafted by Simpson with the help of county commissioners, ranchers, conservationists and recreationists—they each point the way forward for Idaho wilderness bills, he said. Both are homegrown Idaho solutions, he said.

"It demonstrates we can do that," he said.

Simpson said the combined support of the state's entire congressional delegation for the two Idaho bills and the larger omnibus land bill is significant.

In recent talks Simpson had with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.—the sponsor of the omnibus bill—Bingaman expressed concern that CIEDRA, with its land conveyances and economic payouts to local governments, was akin to buying local support for a new wilderness area. Simpson said he told Bingaman that while wilderness may have once been just about drawing boundaries, these days it's also about addressing local concerns outside of wilderness.

"I don't look at it as buying wilderness," he said.

Looking beyond the Owyhee Initiative and CIEDRA, Idaho conservationists and even some of the state's congressional delegation are openly talking about future wilderness legislation that could be considered. They say some of Idaho's approximately 9.3 million acres of roadless national forest land are eligible for wilderness.

In north-central Idaho's Clearwater country, Sen. Crapo is currently working with a group similar to the Owyhee Initiative. Though the process isn't as far along, participants in the Clearwater Basin Collaborative have identified issues they'd like to address, said ICL Executive Director Rick Johnson. One area identified for possible wilderness designation is the 252,000-acre Great Burn roadless area, roughly two-thirds of which is west of the Idaho-Montana state line.

"It mirrors the Owyhee," Johnson said of the Clearwater process. "We're pretty excited about it."

Near the Wood River Valley, Johnson and others consider the Pioneer Mountains another area with great possibilities for future collaborative wilderness efforts.

According to Johnson, who was on his way to Washington, D.C., for President Barack Obama's inauguration, collaborative efforts like those that led to the Owyhee legislation and CIEDRA serve to de-politicize the issue of wilderness. He said many people now view the politics of polarization as tiresome, and that bodes well for Idaho wilderness bills.

"There is a buzz that people want to see progress," he said.

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