By ROCKY BARKER
The Idaho Statesman
Rep. Mike Simpson is asking President Barack Obama to give him six to eight months to push for wilderness protection for the Boulder and White Cloud mountains in Central Idaho.
“They’re ready to move sooner than later on this,” Simpson said in an interview with the Statesman on Friday. “What I’ve asked them to do is give me the opportunity to pass this in Congress.”
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who visited Idaho earlier in the week, supports Simpson’s legislative efforts. She said it would be the best solution to the complex Boulder-White Clouds question.
“We’d love to see legislation passed,” Jewell said. She noted, however, that “the president’s not afraid to use his pen.”
At a wilderness conference in Washington last month, White House Counselor John Podesta said Obama plans to designate more national monuments—protection he can create with his signature. Podesta told Simpson that he’d better hurry if he wants to pass his Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, which includes wilderness for the now-storied mountain ranges as well as incentives for communities and ranchers to support the plan.
Simpson has been working on legislation to protect 300,000 acres of the Boulder-White Clouds and Jerry Peak area for more than a decade. It died at the last minute in the 2006 Congress and was killed in 2010 when Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, withdrew his support.
That prompted environmental groups and former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus to call on Obama to protect up to 700,000 acres as a national monument, using his powers under the Antiquities Act of 1906. They are eager to see additional wilderness protections for parts of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, which they fear could become subject to additional motorized vehicle use or open to mining or other economic activities.
They also say that the national recreation area never gets the attention or budget it needs to sufficiently protect what are world-class recreation, water and wildlife values.
The Antiquities Act was signed into law and first used by President Theodore Roosevelt, who designated such national monuments as the Grand Canyon, Devils Tower in Wyoming and the Petrified Forest in Arizona.
Blaine County officials voted to support a national monument. Custer County commissioners voted to oppose it. Also in opposition are Gov. Butch Otter and the Idaho congressional delegation.
Both counties called on administration officials to meet with local residents before making a decision. Jewell told reporters Tuesday that she would be happy to talk with local officials and come to the Boulder-White Clouds, an area she visited before she was appointed to her current post.
Because most of the area is national forest, the Department of Agriculture is expected to take the lead in scheduling local meetings. But no meetings are set for this fall or winter.
CHANGE IN COMMITTEE LEADERSHIP
Simpson is hopeful that he can get a Boulder-White Clouds bill through the divided House now that Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah—who might be open to passing wilderness bills—will take over as chairman of the House Resources Committee.
Simpson knows the history of the Owyhee wilderness bill passed by Sen. Mike Crapo in 2009—after a decade-long collaborative process—prompted by the possibility of a national monument there.
That gives him urgency and a persuasive case to make for passing a Boulder-White Clouds bill written by Idaho officials, residents and conservationists.
“By the end of next year, it will be a national monument or we will have passed a wilderness bill, one of the two,” Simpson said.
Crapo, who toured sage grouse habitat with Jewell last week, would not say whether he supports Simpson’s bill, which he did repeatedly until 2010, when Risch broke from the coalition.
“I’m a complete advocate for the collaborative process, and you all know I think this is an issue that Congress should resolve,” Crapo said.
Simpson said Crapo and Risch have a choice to work with him or not.
“Do they want to do this bill, or do they want the Obama administration to do a national monument and blame the administration for it?” Simpson said.