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For the week of February 20 - 26, 2002


Wilderness quest continues

Environmentalist encouraged by Simpson’s work

"Because of our history, there’s a lot of resistance to some of these ideas in Idaho: ranchers versus environmentalists just as an example. But it’s a big state. We ought to be able to resolve some of these things." Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho

"There’s not been anything like this in 20 years in Idaho. This would be a huge feather in Simpson’s cap. He’d look like a leader. He’d be a leader." Linn Kincannon, Idaho Conservation League Central Idaho director

Express Staff Writer

It’s the largest potential wilderness area remaining in the Lower 48 States, and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said he is still interested in carrying legislation to designate a Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness Area.

It’s been three years since Simpson told a large group of the state’s leading environmentalists the time had come to move forward on wilderness designation for the two Central Idaho mountain ranges. His announcement came during a visit to the Idaho Conservation League’s annual Wild Idaho! conference at Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains in 1999.

Simpson said in an interview last month that the wilderness designation is something he is still interested in, as long as compromise, consensus and open communication among all groups involved are key ingredients in the process.

"They’ve got to get together and start talking and build that relationship and that trust," he said.

The Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges and surrounding lands—parts of the Challis and Sawtooth National Forests and some Bureau of Land Management land—are still largely bereft of roads and mining and timber harvesting scars.

The potential wilderness area includes over 500,000 acres of both ranges, stretching roughly from state Highway 75 on the north and west to Highway 93 on the east and Trail Creek Road on the south.

The area is more than twice the size of the 217,000-acre Sawtooth Wilderness Area and one quarter the size of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, the contiguous United States’ second largest.

The ranges include jagged alpine peaks, sharply tumbling mountain streams, one of the southernmost populations of indigenous mountain goats in the world and several biologically diverse eco-zones.

As part of a study completed in 1987, the area was selected by Sawtooth National Forest officials as potential wilderness. Shortly thereafter, Challis National Forest and BLM officials followed suit.

But the proposed wilderness is surrounded by Idahoans who have made livings off the land for generations. The Salmon River and East Fork Salmon River canyons are chock full of ranchers who generally resent federal government decision-making in their back yards.

They also fear the prospect of creating a wilderness area that might draw more outsiders to their rural valleys, Idaho Conservation League Central Idaho Director Linn Kincannon said.

"Because of our history, there’s a lot of resistance to some of these ideas in Idaho: ranchers versus environmentalists just as an example," Simpson said. "But it’s a big state. We ought to be able to resolve some of these things."

Simpson said he has been talking with ranchers about potential compromises and avenues for moving forward on wilderness designation. Land trades for ranchers could come in to play. And perhaps Boulder-White Cloud designation would mean other proposed wilderness areas must be taken out of consideration, he said.

"Right now we’re in the talking process," he said. "You’ve got to build some consensus."

Kincannon said Simpson’s efforts are absolutely crucial to the proposal and process.

"His involvement gives the proposal credibility for (ranchers and rural Idahoans)," she said. "If we could be successful here, it could provide a template on how to work on some of these other contentious issues, and that’s our hope,"

Kincannon pointed out that the Idaho Conservation League and other environmental groups have previously pushed for state-wide wilderness bills. That’s been part of the problem, she said, and narrowing the focus could help to facilitate eventual success.

"There’s not been anything like this in 20 years in Idaho," she said. "This would be a huge feather in Simpson’s cap. He’d look like a leader. He’d be a leader."

And though there are some significant road blocks ahead, Kincannon said Simpson’s involvement breeds hope.

"As long as Simpson is working on it, I’m there," she said.

There are more than 100 million acres of federally designated wilderness land in the U.S., and many more areas, including the Boulder-White Cloud mountains, the Owyhee canyons in Southwestern Idaho and expanded areas to the Sawtooth Wilderness are eyed as potential wilderness.

According to Wilderness Society Idaho Regional Director Craig Gehrke, wild areas are becoming more valuable because they offer increasing populations the freedom to enjoy the outdoors. They will become increasingly treasured for their ability to provide escape, he said.

Idaho has between 10- and 11-million acres of road free land that is not protected, the Boulder and White Cloud mountains among them.

"Idaho is ground zero in (the) fight to save roadless forest lands," according to a Wilderness Society report.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.