Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Simpson: odds good for local wilderness

Legislation would confer highest protection to 318,765 acres north of Ketchum

Express Staff Writer

Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, left, and Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, share a laugh during a discussion of Boulder-White Clouds wilderness legislation both have sponsored in the current session of the U.S. Congress. The bill would establish 318,765 acres of new wilderness in the two local mountain ranges north of Ketchum. Photo by Jason Kauffman

There's a solid chance that the Boulder Mountains will contain federally designated wilderness when the sun sets on the scenic peaks north of Ketchum for the last time in 2009.

Saying as much on Sunday was Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who gave an upbeat assessment about the chances his Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill has in the current session of Congress.

"I firmly believe it will be in the next lands bill," he said.

Simpson, the original sponsor of the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA), made his comments during the Idaho Conservation League's annual Wild Idaho conference at Redfish Lake over the weekend. Simpson has attended the ICL conference each year for about a decade.

Simpson's bill would establish 318,765 acres of wilderness in local mountain ranges. Most of the lands targeted 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 create a 110,438-acre Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness in the southern Boulders outside of Ketchum. Farther to the north and east, the bill establishes a 76,657-acre White Clouds Wilderness and a 131,670-acre Jerry Peak Wilderness.

This year, Simpson was joined at the Wild Idaho conference by his colleague in the U.S. House, first-term Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho.

Simpson and Minnick have reintroduced CIEDRA into Congress as co-sponsors. It seems likely that having a Democrat as a co-sponsor in the Democrat-controlled Congress may give the wilderness legislation better momentum, an observation the two legislators noted. So far, the new Congress has been more wilderness friendly than previous ones, having already approved a package of land bills that designated just over 2.1 million acres of new wilderness across the country, including 517,000 acres in Idaho's Owyhee County.

"I'm enjoying working with Walt," Simpson told the crowd of conservationists. "He gives us some insight of what's happening on the other side of the aisle."

The Owyhee Canyonlands legislation established the first new wilderness areas in Idaho in 29 years. Simpson said its passage bodes well for CIEDRA's chances.

"The second one will be the Boulder-White Clouds," he predicted.

Simpson said one of the most significant roadblocks delaying passage of CIEDRA is the relationship between part-time Stanley resident and popular folk singer Carole King and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-WV. Rahall is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, where wilderness bills begin their legislative journey in the U.S. House.

King, an acquaintance of Rahall, supports another piece of wilderness legislation, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), which was first introduced into Congress in the early 1990s. NREPA would establish 24 million acres of new wilderness throughout the northern Rocky Mountains, including more than 500,000 acres in the Boulder-White Clouds region.

According to Simpson, Rahall's major objection to his bill is related to King and her support for NREPA. Simpson said his bill just needs to make it past Rahall.

"If it gets on the floor it will pass," he said.

Simpson said Idaho's U.S. senators—Mike Crapo and Jim Risch—both back CIEDRA.

Jason Kauffman:

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